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Film Review: Ben-Hur (2016)

Ben-Hur, the most recent big-screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ, stars Jack Huston (of the Huston Hollywood dynasty) as the titular Jewish prince whose quest for revenge against his adoptive brother, Roman officer Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), brings him into life-changing contact with Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Rodrigo Santoro). Originally best friends, Judah Ben-Hur and Messala Severus find themselves on opposite sides of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in Jerusalem. When Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk) settles in to power as Roman governor of Jerusalem and insurrection grows, the high-ranking Messala sacrifices his adoptive family—including Judah, his mother (Ayelet Zurer), and sister (Sofia Black-D’Elia)—to Rome’s wrath. Judah spends years as a galley slave but eventually escapes and befriends a rich horse breeder (Morgan Freeman). Finally, he makes his way home in order to discover the fate of his wife (Nazanin Boniadi) and family and to bring down Messala in the Roman blood sport of chariot racing.

Director Timur Bekmambetov (best known for his Russian vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch and the bullet-bending Wanted) brings his disruptive style to this classic epic, butchering the poignant tale with accelerated editing and excessive CG effects. The only time Bekmambetov’s style is properly utilized is during the chaotic war ship and chariot racing scenes, which should be over-the-top and exciting; otherwise, his heightened way of storytelling feels disrespectful to the emotional heft and grandeur of the saga, emptying out Ben-Hur for false thrills. The nuances of the story are presented in an incoherent manner for the first portion of the movie as the filmmakers fail to squeeze a three-hour blockbuster into an impossible two in order to rush toward action set-pieces.

Production design is pretty fun however, although anachronistic: Pilate inexplicably wears a luxuriant fur coat in the Middle Eastern setting and everyone else wears elaborate gold jewellery, leather straps, and embroidered tunics in a rather high-fashion society. Huston’s hair also goes through many, many changes. It switches from long, to short, to wet, to frizzy, to black, to brown, and more, accompanied by a beard that undergoes different trimmings as well. The settings are appropriately gorgeous, dusty, and grand and the chariot racing appropriately brutal, bloody, and adrenaline-fuelled.

Huston and Kebbell’s acting is solid, but Huston distorts many of his lines with incomprehensible whisper-growls and Kebbell’s work is hampered by the hurried storyline. The film turns Messala into the least emotionally logical version of his character with the least believable redemption of all time. In fact, the entire message of Christ’s forgiveness and love, which changes Judah so profoundly, is mangled by the frustrating run-time. These easily remedied failures in Ben-Hur indicate that Hollywood should have more patience when adapting great epics and not try to narrow the scope (which is the best part!) by supplanting story and character with typified action.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 2.5

Story: 3.5

Acting: 3.5

Dialogue: 2

Editing: 2.5

Visuals: 3.5

Music/Score: 3

Overall Average: 2.9

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