FILM REVIEW – BEN-HUR. With Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman. Written by Keith R. Clarke & John Ridley. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. 124 minutes.
Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” has been filmed several times, most notably in a 1925 silent version with Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman and the 1959 version with Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. If you want to know why this new BEN HUR is dead on arrival here’s the answer in a nutshell: Hollywood no longer knows how to do period epics.
Consider that the 1959 version (which ran an hour-and-a-half longer than this one) came after numerous big screen films over the course of the decade that had been set in ancient times. These include movies like “David and Bathsheba,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Quo Vadis,” and “The Robe.” What’s a recent model? The 2014 box office disaster “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Today’s filmmakers may know how to do superhero movies (most of the time), but the Biblical-era epic eludes them.
For those just coming in, the film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), who we are constantly told is a “Jewish prince.” The “Jewish” part is important only because this is a Christian fable, and Judah will be transformed by his encounters with Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro). The “prince” part makes no sense as the land is under Roman rule, and so he has no real role. It just lets us know that his family has wealth.
Judah has a brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in years earlier. Messala realizes that he will never fully be accepted by the family–though Judah is devoted to him–so he goes off to join the Roman army, eventually coming back to Jerusalem in a leadership position. Things quickly go bad with Judah arrested and sent off to be a galley slave. Five years later, he comes back to get his vengeance against Messala (in the famous chariot race) and have his transformative experience with Jesus.
The problem here is that the actors have no idea how to bring these characters to life. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is stilted and wooden. Even an accomplished veteran like Morgan Freeman (sporting gray dreadlocks) sounds like he’s reading his lines off of a teleprompter. Few of the rest of the cast get the time or material to build a character, and Huston hasn’t the gravitas to carry off Judah. (By contrast by the time he did “Ben-Hur,” Charlton Heston had already played Moses in “The Ten Commandments.”) Kebbell is bland as Messala, and the three women playing Judah’s wife, mother, and sister (Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Sofia Black-D’Elia) seem almost interchangeable.
Of course, the chariot race is what holds our interest, and the film actually opens with a brief scene from it as if they realized it would be the only thing keeping us in our seats. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov has yet to fulfill the early promise of his Russian-set vampire films “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” bringing strong visuals and set pieces to films that proved not to be worth it, like “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” Chalk up this “Ben-Hur” as one more wasted effort. Let’s hope he can find the right project before Hollywood moves on to someone else.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.