Charlton Heston is not spinning in his grave. Paramount's remake of Ben-Hur isn't on par with the 1959 classic, but certainly stands on its own as a decent film. The Heston-led Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars and is widely considered to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It would have been a miracle if this version met that standard. There were some glaring issues for me, but the good far outweighs the bad in this Paramount Pictures release. Russian Director Timur Bekmambetov delivers a solidly entertaining, well-shot, biblical epic.
Set in Jerusalem in the time of Christ, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince from a wealthy family. He and his adopted brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), race horses for sport in their patrician lives. Judah has fallen in love with Esther (Nanazin Boniadi), the daughter of a servant. Messala, who isn't a Jew and prays to the Roman gods, is enamored with his adopted sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D'Elia). But Messala knows he would never be allowed to marry her. With no options, Messala leaves his family in the dead of night and enlists as a soldier in the fierce Roman Legion.
As years pass, the Roman Army crushes revolts. They use the stones from the Jewish cemeteries to construct a massive circus, an arena where blood sports and chariot races are held; crucifying any Jews who stand in their way. Messala returns home as a revered war hero and garrison commander of the city. Happily reunited with Judah, Messala asks him to inform on any news of a Jewish insurrection. The dreaded Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) is coming to Jerusalem. There can be no sedition. Judah refuses, but vows he is no traitor to Rome. Alas, a horrible tragedy befalls the Ben-Hur family during Pilate's procession. It will turn one brother into a slave, the other a murderous betrayer.
Ben-Hur is a tale of vengeance and redemption. Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro) is central to this story. So in that regard, this can be viewed as a Christian film with heavy religious overtones. It is the crux of Judah's spiritual awakening. The action is here in spades, but it was surprising how well the emotional journey is portrayed. While Jack Huston is capable as the lead Judah, Toby Kebbell, an actor I've really admired, is fantastic as Messala. In the hallowed original, Messala was an entirely duplicitous character, an outright villain. In this remake, he is played with great subtlety and depth by Kebbell. His actions are despicable, but not without reason. It's important that was conveyed to truly understand the character. Judah and Messala are filled with hatred for each other. But there was a deep love, a brotherly bond that was broken. Ben-Hur sells this story and deserves that credit.
The action scenes are spectacularly shot. I had expected the chariot races to be good, but the sea battle is equally stunning. Bekmambetov makes use of multiple camera angles and viewpoints. We see the action from the claustrophobic confines of the ship's galley, the horse's point of view in the circus. It's an all-encompassing take, the audience sees what the players and animals are experiencing. Coupled with expert sound design and slick editing, Ben-Hur's special effects are worth your theater dollar.
Ben-Hur feels disjointed and clunky in parts. Some scenes are well conceived, while others seem slapped together. It makes me think the filmmakers went out of their way to not retread ground with the original. This is a serious flaw. The passage of time is not well represented. Also, while some reunions are deeply emotional, others are cavalier and glossed over. It jars continuity, relegating some characters to afterthoughts. These mistakes subtract greatly from the gravitas of the story, which is a pillar of the 1959 film.
Do not see Ben-Hur as a cinephile that will nitpick and compare. I won't even get into the why of remaking such a vaunted film. The 1959 Ben-Hur was also a remake of the twenties silent film. There's a pretty good chance that 90% of modern audiences haven't seen either. I judge this film on its own merit. The final conclusion, Ben-Hur is definitely worth seeing. It has a standout performance, moments of spiritual depth, and first-rate action scenes.