When you hear the title "Ben-Hur," you would automatically think of that spectacular 1959 cinematic epic starring Charlton Heston in the title role. That classic film won a whopping 11 Oscar awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Actor (Heston), Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Cinematography - Color and most of the technical awards. Aside from this, there had already been a silent film version of this Lew Wallace's 1880 novel back in 1925. There had also been a TV mini-series version just recently in 2010.
These facts begged the question: why do they even need to make yet another film retelling the at all even when there was already an iconic definitive film version? This new version is directed by Timur Bekmambetov (best known for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"), with a script written by Keith Clarke and Oscar winner John Ridley ("12 Years a Slave"). Despite my misgivings that this would most probably be one foolhardy, misguided and needless fiasco, I guess it was curiosity out of anything else about how they would redo some iconic scenes with modern technology that compelled me to go see it on the big screen anyway.
The story was set in Jerusalem at around the time when Jesus Christ was still alive. Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Judean prince with his mother Naomi and sister Tirzah. His best friend Massala is a Roman orphan adopted by house of Hur, so the two boys grow up as brothers. One day, Massala felt he should prove himself and redeem his family name. He left and joined the Roman army, returning to Judea years later as an officer under the governor Pontius Pilate. When Jewish zealots attempt to assassinate Pilate, the friendship of the two brothers was put to the extreme test.
Jack Huston had the unenviable task of stepping into the huge shoes of original actor Charlton Heston. At his prime as Ben-Hur, tall and muscular Heston looked formidable and almost superhuman. Jack Huston, a scion of the famed Huston clan of Hollywood, wisely did not try to outdo Heston in the physical aspect (which was obviously impossible). He did well by playing Ben-Hur in a distinctly more sensitive and realistic manner. He stood out from the rest of the cast in terms of screen presence, especially in the first half of the film.
Toby Kebbell was unremarkable as Messala. He played a Messala who was dour and dull throughout the film. He lacked in physical charisma and emotional conviction, especially when compared with the Messala of the 1959 film, Stephen Boyd. He was never at any point a match for Huston's Ben-Hur.
Morgan Freeman (the only A-list actor in the cast) looked terrible with those dreadful dreadlocks he was made to wear as the African sheik Ilderim. This was the same role that Hugh Griffith won his Oscar for, and in this film the role seemed to have been expanded to suit an actor of Freeman's stature.
British-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi as Judah's wife Esther as a strong and independent woman, not simply a suffering martyr. American Sofia Black D'Elia played Judah's sister Tirzah and award-winning Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer played his mother Naomi. The scenes involving Naomi and Tirzah were among the dramatic highlights of the 1959 film, but the impact of those scenes seemed lacking in this remake.
The look and feel of the film was familiar, reminiscent of "Gladiator." The first major scene sequence one would take note of are those set on the Roman warship where Judah was condemned to be a chained rowing slave in its galley. The sea battle of Romans vs. Greek attackers was also tense and brutal. However, the CG effects employed in these scenes were very obvious.
The centerpiece scene in all the Ben Hur films is the big chariot racing scene pitting Judah vs. Messala. For this new film, this scene was also shot in the Cinecitta studios in Italy where the 1959 chariot race was also shot. This time, there was none of the pageantry that preceded the race proper seen in the original films, only a speech by Pilate. The chariots here were more compact and less grandiose than the ones seen before, although the horses were just as magnificent. The film crew now had the technical advantages of GoPro cameras to capture more of the frenetic action from all angles. The mixing of the bone and chariot crunching sound effects was excellent. The filmmakers supposedly did more physical stunts than CG, but the overly stylistic execution of the scene, while still exciting, sort of robbed it of grit and realism, making it look CG.
The interaction of Judah and Esther with Jesus Christ were still packed a lot of dramatic weight. Rodrigo Santoro was a magnetic presence as Jesus Christ, a role also made more prominent in this new version, when compared to the 1959 version where the actor in the 1959 film was not even credited. The ending was totally different from the previous film. This new ending emphasized more the religious message of forgiveness and redemption. When I saw the names of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (producer of "The Bible" TV series) in the credits, I then understood where this sentiment came from. 6/10