Film Review | Wishing it was 1959

Ben-Hur 2016 is more of a TV miniseries than Technicolor marvel • 2/5

20 September 2016, 8:10am
Syrupy and stodgy, the 2016 take on Ben-Hur 2016 is an object lesson in how to turn a classic from the Golden Age of cinema into a woefully average summer blockbuster
Syrupy and stodgy, the 2016 take on Ben-Hur 2016 is an object lesson in how to turn a classic from the Golden Age of cinema into a woefully average summer blockbuster
Film Review by Marco Attard

A Good Friday staple since time immemorial, the Charlton Heston-starring 1959 Ben-Hur is most memorable for three main reasons – buttock-clenching length (3 hours 44 minutes!), gay subtext (pointed out by uncredited screenwriter Gore Vidal, furiously denied by Heston) and that chariot race (one of the foundations of action cinema as we know it). But this 2016 remake? I’ll spare the lazy the trouble of reading the rest of this review – Ben-Hur 2016 a little more than yet another lazy summer blockbuster, a film more TV miniseries than Technicolor marvel. 

The 1959 William Wyler-directed film – technically a remake of a remake, seeing how the 1880 novel was previously adapted in film form in 1907 and 1925 – kept things fairly simple, being the story of Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur and his friend Messala, whose relationship is shattered due to reasons of faith and tribe. However, the 2016 version adds a good dollop of character-based syrup to the mix, as the Roman Messala (Toby Kebbell) is now not only the adopted brother of the titular Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) but also the grandson of one of Caesar’s assassins. As for the reasons behind Ben-Hur’s becoming galley slave and eventual chariot racer, while the original involved a misunderstanding the new version has Ben-Hur harbouring a zealot youth, leading to a direct attack Pontius Pilate from his host’s roof. Subtle, this film is not. 

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch, Wanted), Ben-Hur is a snappy affair, eager to move the action from scene to the next. In one way that’s a relief, since this remake chops the running time to a relatively breezy 2 hours 30 minutes. While his take on the narrative suffers from a propensity of clumsy flashes of both backwards and forwards variety, Bekmambetov at least directs a couple of decent action scenes, such as a claustrophobic sequence involving an attack on the galley where Ben-Hur has spent the last five years as a slave. His take on the iconic chariot race also manages to entertain with its almost cheerful crunching of both man and horse, although compared to the 1959 version it still ends up being toothless, what with its chariot wheels lacking in terrifying hidden blades. 

Morgan Freeman makes an odd turn as Ben-Hur’s manager in chariot
Morgan Freeman makes an odd turn as Ben-Hur’s manager in chariot
Toby Kebbell makes something of a glowering figure from his Messalla, especially when clad in Roman military finery. On the other hand Jack Huston fails to impress, particularly since he inevitably stands next to a Charlton Heston seemingly hewn out of solid oak – and as a result never manages to look like more than a twig. Otherwise there’s little more can be said on the rest of the cast, aside from Morgan Freeman’s bizarre turn as a dreadlocked chariot trainer (a character somewhat reminiscent of the late Oliver Reed’s amoral gladiator trainer in Gladiator) and Rodrigo Santoro showing up at regular intervals as Jesus.

In news pleasing to MUSEUM teachers everywhere, this Ben-Hur is even more overt in its intertwining of the main narrative with the New Testament, and at one point even has the Christ making a typical sermon on loving one’s neighbour while indulging in a spot of carpentry. Well, wasn’t he supposed to be the son of a carpenter as well as God?

But in the end of the day Ben-Hur 2016 remains a wholly average affair. It does not qualify as an outright a failure, but in a summer lacking in truly memorable blockbuster cinema that only makes it all the more forgettable. As for your Good Friday viewing, stick with the 1959 version.