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Ben-Hur review – rowdy revamp takes a Roman holiday from reality

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/08/2016 Jordan Hoffman

They finally got the roof fixed.

In every previous adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s wildly successful 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the instigating event stems from Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish nobleman, accidentally knocking some stray tiles on to the heads of Roman bigshots as they enter Jerusalem. In 1907 (the 15-minute version), 1926 (Fred Niblo’s luxe and still very watchable silent), 1959 (the enormous Charlton Heston classic), 2003 (an animated version featuring Heston’s voice) and 2010 (a TV miniseries) tiles rained from above, shattering the friendship between Judah and his boyhood chum, the striving Roman tribune Messala. It’s not a stretch to call the poorly manufactured shingles at the Casa de Hur a key prop in cinema history – if not quite Charles Foster Kane’s sled then at least on a par with Wilson the volleyball.

Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakh director whose previous work includes Night Watch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is unafraid of implementing the sweeping changes that might make his Ben-Hur more palatable for current tastes. So out with the tiles, in with an arrow fired from an angry Zealot our hero Judah (Jack Huston) is reluctantly hiding in his compound.

Surprisingly, many of Bekmambetov’s updates work well. Important characters are removed (so long Quintus Arrius) and “stakes are raised,” as they say in screenwriting textbooks. Judah marries the servant girl Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) at the beginning of the picture this time and Messala (Toby Kebbell) gets a whole new backstory.

In this version Messala is the grandson of a disgraced Roman (something to do with Julius Caesar’s assassination), taken in by the Hur family like a toga-wearing Tom Hagen. This new Ben-Hur is, as much as anything, a story about two brothers (slowly) learning how to love one another after jealousy and machismo get in the way.

Bekmambetov shows us Messala’s war years Here he is fighting in the rain! Fighting in the snow! Fighting in the sand! – all for the betterment of Rome, but maybe just to prove to his old pal Judah that he can stand in his own two sandals. Messala returns to Jerusalem hoping Judah will help him quell the Zealots who are disrupting Roman rule. At first, both men see eye to eye as moderates, but Judah’s sister (Sofia Black D’Elia) accuses him of letting the family’s wealth make him complacent.

There’s a stretch in the film’s first act where things aren’t so black and white and the dialogue is fairly sharp. In its richer moments, it may not reach the level of I, Claudius, but it’s at least within a javelin’s throw of HBO’s Rome.

When Messala finally arrests Judah for attempted assassination, we’re off to the galley ships. Bekmambetov cuts loose, drenching us in the agonised cries of whipped slaves rowing to the beat of their sadistic torturers. The galley sequence is the best thing Bekmambetov has ever shot, and that includes all the discorporate lunacy in Night Watch. In the bowels of those ships we see, in addition to all sorts of innovative ways for people to die horrible deaths, Judah take charge of the situation and grow from a rich prince to a hero. This is something we didn’t get with Charlton Heston – that was a man born at “ramming speed”.

I can’t emphasise enough how cheesy Ben-Hur gets towards the end, especially once Morgan Freeman shows up as an owner of chariot horses who doesn’t seem to know much about caring for his animals or have any discernible plan for entering the games. The big finish, another version of the chariot race, is meant to dazzle but comes as a slight anticlimax. We’ve seen that sort of thing before.

Admittedly, much of what makes this new Ben-Hur work is that it riffs on the larger-than-life nature of its characters. That’s a double-edged sword in the third act, as the film struggles to tie up all the loose ends, but the performances are just good enough to get though the silly scenes between each adventure. There’s also the Christ storyline, which feels more shoehorned here than ever before. But would Ben-Hur without Christ still be Ben-Hur?

The movie still stops to deliver sermons, but there’s less of that here than in any other version. We lose the lengthy birth-in-the-manger prologue, but we do get the addition of what might be considered a new Station of the Cross. Some may find that offensive, but if I’m going to lose my falling tiles, the faithful are going to have to bend a little, too.

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