Ben-Hur film review - heavy-handed but watchable enough

This review originally appeared at TheMovies.co.za.

Let’s be honest. The latest (and actually fifth) film adaptation of historical novel Ben-Hur was always going to be met with scepticism. That happens when you’re essentially remaking one of the greatest movies ever made. The 1959 Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston, is a joint record-holder for the most Academy Awards won, at eleven. It’s impossible to compete.


Still, it’s not exactly surprising that a new Ben-Hur was greenlit. When it comes to contemporary cinemagoers and four-hour long sword-and-sandal epics, ain’t nobody got time for that. Today’s audiences, in theory, should be ready for a fresh take on the Bible Times tale of revenge and forgiveness. Especially one that promises to take full advantage of 21st Century CGI-wizardry, and director Timur (Night Watch, Wanted) Bekmambetov’s visual flair.

If nothing else, Ben-Hur 2016 should be one wild chariot ride, right?

Eh, not quite.

Though far from a turkey, the new Ben-Hur plays by safe, traditional formula throughout. Bekmambetov manages to insert some first-person POV shots (à la Hardcore Henry) into a naval battle and the film’s iconic chariot race – and these moments are effective at sucking you into the chest-crushing action. It’s just that overall, the film comes across as Gladiator with a touch of Prince of Egypt. Oh, and Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) in a supporting role.


A quick plot summary: Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) doesn’t want any trouble with the Roman forces occupying Jerusalem. This includes Ben-Hur’s adopted Roman brother Messala (Tony Kebbel), who is torn between loyalties to his foster family and professional ambitions. An attack on Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) sees Ben-Hur take the blame, and he loses his family, his home and his freedom. After five years as a slave on a Roman war galley, fate and Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) present Ben-Hur with the opportunity to face Messala in a high-stakes chariot race.

In terms of creating the Holy Land of the First Century, the new Ben-Hur is gorgeous-looking and convincing. With the exception of five seconds of horses clambering over stadium seating, the CGI is equally strong. Visually, the film is engrossing – and I imagine it would be spectacular at IMAX. Other areas, though, discourage immersion.

For one thing, Ben-Hur is devoid of warmth and personality. Steely-eyed Huston has something of Rufus Sewell about him, and is always set to max intensity, so he doesn’t win audience affections. Neither do the supporting players. Freeman’s exasperated Azeem in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is far more likeable than his character here – who mostly ends up with redundant lines of coaching encouragement during the race. “Hang back!” “Watch out!” “Horses!”


Nazanin Boniadi as Esther, Ben-Hur’s love, looks absolutely right for the time and role, but she is saddled with some awfully clunky dialogue about change through love, casting aside hate and forgiving your enemies. As dialogue like this repeats throughout the movie, signposting themes for the audience, the film can start to feel less like Ben-Hur and more like Ben-Dur. (Come on, I had to get at least one pun in).

Produced by The Bible and Son of God’s Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Christians don’t have to worry about Ben-Hur disrespecting their faith. However, those just-mentioned productions are not known for their subtlety, and heavy-handedness is evident throughout Ben-Hur. Examples include the boo-hiss villainy of the Romans, and the film’s supremely tidy ending, which deviates from the 1959 movie and literary source material.

If there is any major complaint to be made about Ben-Hur, it’s that the filmmakers evidently didn’t know what to do post- chariot race. As a result, everything is cleaned up too swiftly and conveniently, when in its first third, the film was content to move at a much more leisurely pace.


Ultimately, though, you just can’t hate Ben-Hur. It’s not special. It’s definitely not sophisticated in terms of its message. However, it’s sincere, and does enough right as a historical actioner to make it watchable.

3 stars out of 5.

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