The most well-known filmed version of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel is, of course, Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins and Stephen Boyd.
Fifty-one years later, in 2010, a new adaptation was produced with a cast as likely well-known now as the 1959’s cast was back then: Ray Winstone (Robin Of Sherwood, Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Great Expectations), Alex Kingston (Doctor Who, ER, Lost In Austen), Art Malik (The Living Daylights, Holby City) Ben Cross (Chariots Of Fire, Star Trek) and Hugh Bonneville (Tomorrow Never Dies, Downton Abbey) to name but a few.
What, then, does this latest version do for both the source material and the memory of the 50s classic? It was a challenge to not go back and watch Charlton Heston’s portrayal and, within the time I had to review the DVD, there was no point plucking the novel off my bookshelf for a re-read. So, I did the decent thing and simply absorbed the 2010 version on its own merits and without any comparisons (so apologies if some of the latter subconsciously sneak out).
First off, it’s a TV mini-series and by that alone I assumed it had the capacity and the scope to pull off the epic life story of Judah Ben-Hur, played by Joseph Morgan – himself no stranger to the sword and sandal genre having appeared in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). Morgan is perhaps best known now for his role in The Vampire Diaries.
Primarily set in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus Christ, Ben-Hur is a privileged Jew living under the occupational rule of the Roman Empire. With a best friend the bastard son of a Roman senator who becomes a soldier of the Empire himself and a close acquaintance who is a Zealot, it is no wonder that before long, Ben-Hur finds himself in hot water, loses his privileges, is sentenced for crucifixion, evade this fate, befriends a Roman admiral and gains his fortune, seeks revenge on those who wronged him and ultimately forgives them “…for they know not what they do”.
Okay, so that’s a pretty general outline of the series but sums up quite neatly that Ben-Hur, simply put, is a tale of retribution and forgiveness: timeless and more relevant today than ever before, perhaps.
Yes, it is set at pivotal moments in the life of Christ and no, this review isn’t about promoting or suppressing religious ideals. It is a work of fiction based around previously documented events and the viewer should enter into it under this basis.
Ben-Hur’s character demands gravitas: as a Jew who undergoes humiliation by being betrayed by Messala, his best friend, but who manages to turn that around should have a presence – but Morgan’s portrayal, as earnest as it is, lacks that most of the time, and it’s a shame. I simply didn’t believe that this Ben-Hur would be able to topple the stolid outlook of Roman attitudes, and the events that occur seem to happen more by luck that judgement.
Why did he not get crucified? How did his mother (Alex Kingston) and his sister (Smallville’s Kirsten Kreuk) avoid garrotting following the betrayal? If the conscience of Messala (Stephen Campbell Moore, Ashes To Ashes) was the reason, then Messala’s ongoing venom has no weight.
That said, Moore turns in a great performance as the villain of the piece – yes, there are other notable opponents, by no means least Hugh Bonneville as the egotistical Pontius Pilate, but Messala is the catalyst and his tainted friendship with Ben-Hur is played effectively and, importantly, believably.
Marc Warren (Hustle) is the Zealot who triggers the events leading to Ben-Hur’s fall and rise and delivers a subtly conniving performance in claiming Ben-Hur’s fiancé and life-that-could-have-been.
Special appearances by Ben Cross as Caesar and Ray Winstone as the admiral Quintus Arrius respectively bring a much needed power to some scenes and allow Morgan to play opposite such acting powerhouses. The danger of this, however, would be that Ben-Hur would seem even weaker under the shadow of Cross and Winstone but, to his credit, Morgan does look to rise to the challenge. But again, while the reasons for Arrius giving Ben-Hur his fortune are sound, one cannot help but think that Arrius would have waited for a much more potent figure to come along.
As a production, it cannot be faulted. Cinematographer Ousama Rawi captures the look and motion of what we imagine to be the start of the first millennium in Jerusalem – there are no big, bombastic sets but highly realistic and beautifully photographed buildings and scenery, most of which was shot in Morocco. Bearing in mind that Rawi previously photographed The Tudors, this is no surprise.
Director Steve Shill has his CV firmly rooted in TV, with credits such as EastEnders, The Tudors, Deadwood and Dexter as well as directing and co-producing the 2008 pilot to Knight Rider. If the first and last mentions on that list deter you, don’t let it. With Ben-Hur, he uses well what Rawi and the actors give him to create a sweeping saga of love and betrayal – and special mention, of course, has to go to the two pivotal events in Ben-Hur’s life: becoming a galley slave and the chariot race.
Without these two set pieces, there would be no Ben-Hur and, while the spectacle of the 1959 versions cannot be beaten, the 2010 version treats them simply as part of telling the story. Yes, there is an element of anticipation, certainly with the chariot scene, but they’re over and done with (albeit effectively and excitingly) and the story moves on accordingly.
Broadcast over two parts, both roughly 90 minutes each, Ben-Hur rattles along at a tidy pace and the viewer (well, at least this one) isn’t given time to sit and reflect. Even the scenes where Christ and Ben-Hur meet are swift and progressive and certainly don’t linger. But is this right? The original novel is called Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, and I wonder if this 2010 production purposely toned down that link? But it’s no matter. I don’t feel it is an evangelical piece, any more than True Blood is a promotional tool for witchcraft.
It’s a good three hours of swords, sandals, double-crossing, chariots and occasional nudity. Just like life, really.
Described on the sleeve as The Making Of Ben-Hur, it’s just seven minutes of a few members of the cast and production team saying how great the series is. Where is the chariot race storyboard? The CGI creation for the galleons and the landscapes of AD33 Jerusalem? The in-depth interviews and pre-production insights? There’s nothing of that here, and this one paltry extra is therefore disappointing and pointless.
You can rent or buy Ben-Hur at Blockbuster.co.uk.