Starting at breakneck pace (literally, ‘cos they’re in chariots, see?!), this somewhat baffling re-remake of Ben-Hur skips over the subtleties of gradual character development and setup in its bid to condense its predecessor’s running time. With Jack Huston’s commitment as Judah Ben-Hur, though, much of this can be forgiven, and Toby Kebbell matches his pace as his resolute Roman adoptive brother, Messala.
It’s also Kebbell, however, who’s victim of an awkwardly-written character volte-face, which sets up the film’s continuing action, but at the expense of a believable character trajectory – not for Kebbell’s lack of trying. Rodrigo Santoro does his best as Jesus, whose own storyline weaves in and out of the plot, clumsily signposted by other characters and reduced to hollow catchphrases more akin to a life coach than the son of God. Morgan Freeman then turns up as Morgan Freeman, and all could be lost – but Ben-Hur just about pulls it back from the brink, depending on the power of your suspension of disbelief.
Despite an exposition-heavy start, the screenplay is actually alright – perhaps its cracks would be more obvious in the hands – and mouths – of a less talented cast. Even Freeman’s Ilderim, saddled with many of the most superfluous lines (“Good move, Judah!”), slips through due to his undeniable screen presence.
The lower-key CGI and grittier, more realistic production design (although with questionable chinos) also lend themselves well to the feel of a film more about utilising closeups than the Ultra Panavision 70 scope of 1959’s version.
Remaking the classic Hollywood epic and 11-time Oscar winner Ben-Hur seems redundant – so 2016’s Ben-Hur starts on the back foot before its release. Unable to keep the storyline in harness like the classic, much-fêted version, this one owes most of its impact to its leading actor and unfussy cinematography.
CAST: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, Sofia Black-D’Elia
DIRECTOR: Timur Bekmambetov
WRITERS: Keith R. Clarke & John Ridley (screenplay), Lew Wallace (novel)
SYNOPSIS: Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, is forced into years of galley slavery after being falsely accused of treason against the Roman Empire by his adoptive army officer brother.
A preview screening of Ben-Hur was kindly provided by Paramount Pictures.