Film Review: ‘Ben-Hur’

If ever our world needed a story of uplift, peace and redemption as told by a repentant old war general, it’s now. But this time around at the movies, sorry to say, General Lew Wallace’s classic tale of Ben-Hur delivers more letdown than uplift.

ben-hur-poster-galleryMaybe some viewers will find this third time a charm for the venerated tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a prince “born to station” in a land suffering under Rome’s tyranny in the time of Jesus. The new movie, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, does offer a regular feast of eye-popping storybook vistas of ancient Jerusalem and the port of Tyrus, even whisking us inside the colossal coliseum at Antioch — all in 3D, no less (at select theaters).

Alas, the screenplay is more of the two-dimensional variety. The book’s rich ethnic mix of observant Jews, Arab nomads, and Roman officials gets short-shrift in a dramatization that cares little about the wide cultural gaps of the period.

Adapting Wallace’s epic 1880 novel to film has always taken a group effort. Here the writing team arrives at something that feels generic rather than insightful. From the Christian perspective, their goal seems to have been to explain away all the story’s religious mystery.

This is the first screen version to jettison the novel’s subtitle “A Tale of the Christ.” While Jesus does stop in for a choice line of dialogue here and there, it’s hardly enough to earn a new actor his union card.

Does God have a hand in the accidental toppling of that rooftop tile as the legions of Pontius Pilate parade below? No, it’s some crazed zealot shooting an arrow.

Is Divine intervention behind the galley officer’s failure to affix the chain to Ben-Hur’s ankle irons on the day of that big sea battle? No, Ben-Hur is just lucky enough to unhook himself from the ship’s wreckage as it sinks to the ocean floor.

Most crucially: Who was this aloof, serious-minded carpenter from Nazareth and why is he in Judah’s story at all? Hard to say from what we are shown. By the time Ben-Hur gets back to “civilization” and witnesses the Crucifixion, it’s anyone’s guess why he is so moved by the vision.

At a running time of just over two hours, a lot of the book has been left out. But the new film also bears evidence of heavy-handed editing room “fixes.” Why was Ben-Hur’s law-abiding family involved with the fugitive zealot in the first place? And how did one of Pilate’s men end up wandering in the desert just in time to inform Ben-Hur that his mother and sister still lived? These pop up like subplots without substance.

The casting of this version ranges from workable to quite good. Jack Huston makes a strong impression as a more spiritually tormented Judah Ben-Hur. He never seems to inhabit the skin of the character, though, in the way Ramon Novarro did in the 1925 version or Charlton Heston did in the 1959 11-time Academy Award-winning Best Picture.

Toby Kebbell has strong moments as Messala, the boyhood playmate who becomes Judah’s nemesis. I particularly liked what the actor does with the idea of his character’s deep insecurities being the cause of his gung-ho pivot to the dark side.

Morgan Freeman and Jack Huston in "Ben-Hur." Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in “Ben-Hur.” Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Morgan Freeman looks bored with being cast again as another all-wise tent-pole philosopher. Stripped of any ethnic identity he just walks around grinning and dispensing sage advice. He can hardly work up any passion at all when he must react to the deaths in the chariot race. For that matter, how did an Arab tribal leader end up supervising the body recovery efforts at such a Roman institution?

This Ben-Hur movie opens with a bang on some rapid-fire glimpses of that climactic chariot race. The filmmakers are right to think of it as the highlight of any Ben-Hur telling. Wallace’s heartfelt historical fiction, however, is much more than a sermon on blood sports.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s much to see in this new Ben-Hur — but too much more that does not meet the eye.

Running Time: Two hours and 4 minutes.

The film is rated PG.

Here are DC area showtimes.

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