BEN-HUR. Jack Huston, Morgan Freeman, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Haluk Bilginer, Rodrigo Santoro. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. 123 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
I think it’s important to precede this review by acknowledging that I haven’t seen any of the previously made adaptations of the source novel, nor have I read said novel. This is pertinent because most reviews of remakes rely on comparing the work to that which came before. Given the status of William Wyler’s 1959 film of the same name, the inevitable comparisons pack extra relevance. However, I will address the film on its own merits, given that I have no comparative knowledge to lean upon.
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince, who lives in Jerusalem with his family – his mother Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), his sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia) and his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Judah and the family’s slave Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) share a great attraction, though they are constrained by her lowly standing in society. Messala, a Roman orphan taken in by the wealthy family in the hope of providing an example of Roman-Jewish unity, grapples with feelings of insecurity in the household and his romantic feelings for Tirzah. Desperate to make a name for himself on his own terms, he to join Caesar’s legions abroad. The bond between Messala and Judah forms the basis for these early scenes, and this is built upon throughout the film. This emphasis serves the story well, with each development in their relationship more keenly felt than the last, and adding strong emotional undercurrent to ground the epic narrative. Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell share a strong chemistry, and their bond as young actors fills their comradery with a nicely pitched level of competitive tension.
When Messala returns to Jerusalem three years later, his reunion with the family is sweet. A promotion means that he is now in charge of ensuring peace in Jerusalem, a role of particular importance now that the governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) will be paying a visit. Rising rebel activity from Jewish zealots is cause for alarm, and Messala leans on Judah for information. Judah has spoken to local religious leaders, preaching that peace is better than inflaming tensions with their Roman occupiers, however he rebuffs Messala’s request for specific names. When Pilate arrives, a young, wounded zealot whom Judah took into his care attempts to assassinate the governor. After the youth escapes, Messala is forced to foist the blame upon Judah’s family, and they are unceremoniously dragged off in chains. Their respective feelings of betrayal throb from the screen. Separated from his family, Judah spends the next five years as a Roman galley slave, enduring unbelievable hardships and backbreaking labour, before a terrific battle at sea sees him wash ashore and into the care of wealthy Nubian Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman).
Ilderim travels the Roman Empire engaging his young charioteers in life-and-death matches against local favourites. When he notices Judah’s aptitude with horses, and Judah realizes that Messala will be riding as Pilate’s champion in the arena, the finale is set to be an epic showdown between the estranged brothers. Rest assured it culminates in a satisfying conclusion.
The film also includes Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) in a supporting role, as his life in Jerusalem (particularly the week directly before his crucifixion) is intertwined with Judah’s own quest for revenge. Their interactions are laden with potent emotion, and though they certainly run the risk of feeling exploitative, they are played with admirable solemnity, as Christ’s example teaches Judah a number of valuable lessons plucked from his ministry.
Director Timur Bekmambetov is perhaps best known for helming the action romp ‘Wanted’, a stylish and violent picture which achieved surprise success, perhaps attributable to its employment of Angelina Jolie as an amorous assassin. His follow-up ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ maintained his focus on brazen style, though the film as a whole suffered at its expense. When Tirzah asks Messala early in the film ‘Don’t they teach subtlety in Caesar’s army?’, I had to suppress a laugh. But with ‘Ben-Hur’, Bekmambetov has dialed back his visual antics for most of the runtime, and with the help of cinematographer Oliver Wood (known for giving the Bourne trilogy its gritty, handheld feel) makes his ancient world feel real and lived in (due also to the work of production designer Naomi Shohan). He allows himself to cut loose when appropriate, and the shipwreck and final chariot race feel suitably thrilling and epic as a result, elevated by their relatively calmly staged surroundings.
There’s no chance that this remake could possibly match William Wyler’s 11 Oscar haul over 50 years ago. It’s just not that sort of film, and I have a feeling my reviewing peers will see that it suffers in comparison (‘How dare they remake a classic!?’), but taken on its own, this ‘Ben-Hur’ is a satisfying and epic slice of cinema.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 25.