Ben-Hur review

There's a new take on Ben-Hur rushing into UK cinemas. There's no need to rush out to see it, though...

Reimagining: a word born out of ‘imagination’. It is a word bound to Ben-Hur in place of the cursed ‘remake’, but if fresh imagination is that which separates reimaginings from remakes, then well, Ben-Hur is most certainly a remake. 

This tale of fraternal conflict has been told many times before. When Charlton Heston slipped on his sandals, he too was starring in a remake. The 1959 edition bulked up the budget and spectacle from the 1925 silent feature, and left audiences’ jaws-on-the-floor. Comparative budgets put Timur Bekmambetov’s take behind 1959’s by quite a margin, and whilst one will be forever remembered for the drama of its classic chariot race, the other will only be remembered as a footnote. Littered with wobbly dialogue and a series of performances which fail to inspire, our new edition simply serves as a platform to preach to the pockets of a new generation. 

Bekmambetov does his best to visually update this tale, focusing on the opportunities for the epic. Branded “epic in every sense of the word” by lead Huston, Ben-Hur hangs its hat on its CGI tentpoles, flooding time, money and effort into its spectacle. Close and ground-level action cams are used to bring a touch of grittiness to the picture; a touch that is sorely lacking elsewhere. Immediately these shots meld with 3D elements but after 40 minutes of having your head squeezed by plastic specs, it all becomes a bit much. These scenes are given top billing, but other than one water-borne sequence, there is little to raise you out of your slouch. Bekmambetov’s vision is not as grand or impressive as he may imagine. 

The grandiose set-pieces falter, and with such little invention surrounding them, they really can’t afford to. These poles prop up a clunky script that, having seen previous incarnations or not, offers little to surprise. This is one brother sending the other into slavery, causing him to suffer, and eventually fight for revenge and redemption – nothing we haven’t seen before. Changes have been made to the original tale, but these only serve to shift the film regimentally in line with much else produced this decade. Ben-Hur‘s biblical message of forgiveness is well-intentioned, but it is told with such glacial velocity that prayers for a speedy resolution came as an act of compassion.

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“But, surely Morgan Freeman is the guiding light to grant us some salvation?” some may crow, and to that I would shake my weary head. English boys Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston relish their opportunity in the spotlight, but Freeman wrinkled and faded in it a long time ago. Like De Niro and Walken, Freeman increasingly acts now for his love of the craft, and presumably the perks that come with it. Here, he is consigned to the ‘African’, Ben-Hur’s enabler, cheering him on with generic calls of support and mumbled nuggets of wisdom. His introduction steers the story onto a collision course, and he’s just along for the ride. Even in this dimension, Freeman is handed more to do than any female on screen. Press have looked at the casting of an Iranian-American and an Israeli actor in the two most prominent female roles, but both are sadly given scraps to work with. ‘Strong’ women they may be, but in this case all that means is that they have opinions. In the end, they simply serve to be ‘had’ or to be used as emotional fuel for the brothers’ pissing contest. 

Their undervalue is symptomatic of the film’s focus. The weighting is placed on the epic, making this feel like a film made for the trailer, but twelve year olds can get bigger visual thrills on their laptops. Spartacus and Game Of Thrones will give comparative stories without leaving the bedroom, whilst paying more attention to character development. Ben-Hur‘s chariot race was never going to top the Fast And Furious franchise for horsepower, and frankly it should never have tried.

Ben-Hur is in UK cinemas from September 7th. 

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2 out of 5