My heart certainly sank when I saw the poster, and the CGI-infested trailer, for the new version of Ben-Hur.
So I'm a little chagrined to report that the movie is way better than I expected.
Although the two leads, Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur and Toby Kebbell as Messala Severus, are quite unknown — at least to me — they both turn out to be good actors.
And I found this remake altogether entertaining, vivid and immersive. The sea battle sequence with galley slave Ben-Hur escaping from a sinking ship is just terrific. And the screenwriters (John Ridley of 12 Years a Slave and Oliver Stone's U-Turn, and Keith Clarke who wrote The Way Back for Peter Weir) have actually done an interesting and imaginative job.
One improvement over the Lew Wallace novel is that the friendship between Ben-Hur and Messala has been built up strongly at the beginning. Since they're going to end up as deadly enemies, this is crucial. And there's a terrific sequence at the start of the film — we begin with the chariot race between Ben and Messala and then do a neat dissolve to them, as young men and friends, racing horses in the desert.
Indeed the movie features some very pretty horses. So I didn’t object to the CGI chariot race, because at least it meant these horses weren’t really getting hurt. (I hope.)
One small weakness of the film is Morgan Freeman in his patented role as Wise Old Man. Much worse is the religious subplot, meretriciously built up to appeal to the American Christian market...
There is some justification for this, though. After all Lew Wallace’s novel, involves a great deal of biblical guff — it's subtitled A Tale of the Christ.
But the movie really shoots itself in the foot with a scene of a Roman Legionnaire being struck dumb in awe by Jesus’s incredible charisma. This is almost identical to — and almost as hilarious as — a priceless scene in the Coen brothers’ Hail Caesar featuring George Clooney. Although in the case of Ben-Hur the humour is utterly unintentional.
Nonetheless, to my considerable surprise, this remake is worth a look.
(Image Credits: Rich pickings at Imp Awards.)