Ben Hur – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Mark Atkins
Writer: Mark Atkins (screenplay)
Stars: Jonno Davies, Adrian Bouchet, Peter Ormond
“Leave well enough alone” my mother used to say. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” (well actually, as she wasn’t from the Deep South, it was more like “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”!) Director Timur Bekmambetov’s mother obviously didn’t give him the same advice, otherwise he surely wouldn’t have taken a classic story like Ben Hur and made such a mess of it.
It was always going to be struggle. Inevitably, any remake of Ben Hur was going to be compared with the iconic 1959 version directed by William Wyler starring the ultra-macho Charlton Heston as Ben Hur and Stephen Boyd, giving a wryly camp performance, as Messala. It went on to win 11 Oscars including Best Actor for Heston and one for the instantly recognisable score by Miklos Rozsa. It is hard to imagine that Bekmambetov’s version will appear on the Oscar lists in any category!
For the few people not familiar with the plot, it tells the story of Judah Ben Hur, a Jewish prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother Messala, an officer in the Roman army. Stripped of his title, separated from his family and the woman he loves, Judah is forced into slavery. After five years at sea, chained to an oar in a galley ship, Judah escapes and returns to his homeland to seek revenge.
Even without comparison to Wyler’s film the present production is limp and sentimental. The opening shot of the two rivals on their chariots, gleaming white Hollywood teeth and flawless moisturised skin, sets the tone for the film. The two central actors, John Huston and Toby Kebbell, do their best but are not helped by the clunky dialogue which always manages to sound more 21st century Los Angeles than 1st century Palestine. The romantic sub-plot, when Judah rides through the countryside to propose to his former slave-girl, Esther, is ludicrous, and it is not clear why Esther, now his wife, is not arrested when Judah, and the rest of his family is.
In fact, there are many aspects of the film that remain unclear. Why does Jesus speak in a Spanish accent when the rest of the characters sound so very Anglo-Saxon? Why are Ben Hur’s mother and sister kept in a prison cell larger than a suite at the Ritz? Who did Morgan Freeman get to curl his magnificent grey dread-locks? And how did he make himself heard by the racing Judah during the chariot race amid the thousands of screaming spectators and the hundred beating drums?
The film was produced by Northern Ireland’s Roma Downey, (Touched by and Angel), and her husband Mark Burnett who describe the film as “a big, action-adventure drama which has, deep within it, this heartbeat of forgiveness that directly comes from Jesus” The Christian evangelical message is central to the film. Jesus plays a much bigger role here than in the 1959 version and all of his appearances are accompanied by sermons on brotherly love. In case you have missed it, it is underlined by the happy-ever-after ending which is truly cloying and totally unconvincing. The film is shown in 3D and is, thankfully, only 2 hours long (90 minutes shorter than the 1959 version!)