Ben-Hur begins with the voice of its most famous star, Morgan Freeman, setting the stage: “In the time of the Messiah …”
Right away, there are issues. Along with on-screen text giving the year as “33 A.D.,” Freeman’s opening line sets us firmly in the Christian world — which is not the world of the characters on-screen.
Freeman plays the key role of Ilderim, called Sheik Ilderim in prior versions of the story; here he is a dreadlocked Nubian rather than an Arab. Will this Ilderim encounter Jesus and become a disciple? If not, why does he talk about “the time of the Messiah”?
I nitpick because I care. On paper, and sometimes even on-screen, there’s some promise and potential in this remake of Ben-Hur.
Co-writer John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, might be expected to find a fresh emotional angle on another story of a man of means unexpectedly reduced to years of slavery.
The comic-booky visual style Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov brought to Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter might seem an odd match for the pedigreed sword-and-sandals epic. But recent genre films like Wrath of the Titans and Hercules haven’t connected with American audiences. Bekmambetov might find a way to bring this story to viewers in the age of Game of Thrones and Batman v Superman.
Then there’s the story itself: a sturdy tale of injustice, revenge and faith, about a Jewish prince’s changing fortunes, his quest for revenge against his Roman friend-turned-enemy Messala and his chance encounters with Jesus Christ. The original 1880 novel was a runaway best-seller and has fueled any number of adaptations on stage and screen — most famously two celebrated feature films, Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent classic and William Wyler’s 1959 Charlton Heston epic, which won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards.
Recent Hollywood Bible films like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings largely alienated the faithful with their artistic license, while faith-based filmmaker couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s Son of God, like the source miniseries The Bible, appealed to faith audiences almost exclusively. A tale with Jesus as a minor character leaves room for creative freedom without subverting Jesus’ story, something Burnett and Downey were brought on board as producer and executive producer to vouchsafe.
The script does have some good ideas. Early scenes play up the tension between imperial Rome and the Jewish Zealot resistance movement, with the fraternal relationship of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, scion of Hollywood royalty) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) influencing their leadership roles as bridge-building moderates in their respective communities.
“How many Romans do you actually know?” Judah presses a hotheaded young Zealot named Dismas (Moisés Arias), trying to shake his hatred of an unknown enemy.
But Dismas responds that the Romans killed his father and did worse to his mother. The film goes on to reimagine the fateful incident leading to Judah and Messala’s falling-out during a visit of a Roman official (here, Pilou Asbæk’s Pontius Pilate) as something more purposeful and political than the chance accident of past versions, with the characters persuasively caught up in circumstances beyond their control.
Indicting Rome for its abuses of power and their consequences without excusing the aggrieved who engage in guerrilla violence, Ben-Hur briefly has something to say to our troubled times. (Hoods popped over the heads of Judah and his family by the Romans drive the point home.)
All this is at least fitfully interesting, if flawed, with some makings of a first act of a Ben-Hur worthy of its heritage. Among the problems: The stripped-down story means cutting anything that can be cut, and the female characters — Judah’s love interest, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), and his mother (Ayelet Zurer) and sister (Sofia Black D’Elia), who is also Messala’s love interest — get short shrift.
Too bad there’s nothing particularly engaging about Judah Ben-Hur himself, and Messala is only marginally more complex. There’s no point rehearsing all that could be said both for and against Charlton Heston in the 1959 film, much less comparing Huston and Heston. The bottom line is Huston is a likable presence, but not a commanding one.
The horror of Judah’s experience going to his new life as a galley slave pulling an oar for a Roman ship is viscerally conveyed: The camera follows Judah as he descends wooden stairs into the belly of the ship like a damned soul descending into hell, and as he takes his seat at the oars, his fingers shy from the shaft as if it were red-hot.
But there’s no sense of how he bears up under his years of hopeless toil. The film jettisons an important subplot from previous tellings in which — somewhat like Joseph sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt — Judah stands out among his fellow slaves through his strength of character, impressing his master and eventually saving his life. This Judah is a pure victim who survives by chance.
An intractable problem is that the Jesus scenes are among the film’s weakest moments. Judah has a couple of early encounters with Jesus, one in which he is still working as a carpenter and another in which he gives Judah a drink as he is led away in chains. We also see Jesus physically intervening in the stoning of a leper.
Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro brings a very Son of God vibe to another hunky screen Jesus. He says things like “Hate and fear are lies that turn us against each other” and “Love is our true nature.”
When Jesus tells Judah, “Love your enemies,” Judah tolerantly responds, “That’s very progressive.” Pilate, spying Jesus urging the Jews to love their neighbors as themselves during the incident with the leper, ominously tells Messala that Jesus is more dangerous than all of the Zealots combined.
These reactions make no sense. “Love your enemies” was among the most revolutionary and counterintuitive of Jesus’ sayings; many moral teachings in the Gospels were fully anticipated by other moralists, but not this one. “Progressive” is a head-smackingly anachronistic concept — and what has Jesus said that would strike the Romans as the least bit dangerous?
In an old-fashioned divine-awe effect, the Roman soldier taking Judah away is so stunned by Jesus’ bearing that he allows the Lord to take the cup from his hand and give the prisoner a drink. For some reason Jesus doesn’t awe the crowd stoning the leper the same way; instead, he throws himself on the man’s body and is initially pelted with stones himself. Neither of these moments works the way the filmmakers want.
This idea that the Romans oppose brotherly love and want their subjects full of hate and anger recurs after the big chariot-race sequence. Observing the cheering crowd, Pilate remarks to Ilderim, “Look at them — they all want blood. They are Romans now.” That Ilderim is neither a Jew nor a disciple of Jesus makes it an even odder remark.
As Ilderim, Freeman is more a drawback than a benefit. In this cast of relative unknowns, he’s too familiar; particularly in the absence of an accent or any other notable performance choices, he never comes off as anything but genial Morgan Freeman in a salt-and-pepper dreadlocked hairpiece. I do like a line in which he upbraids Judah for thinking his suffering is unique, and suggests that he has his own reasons for wanting to humble the pride of Rome (which at the moment happens to be Messala).
I know, I know — what about the chariot race? Well, it’s fine: brutal, visceral, with some striking shots and rather choppy editing. Reliance on computer imagery comes with the usual trade-off: You can put anything on the screen, but there’s less impact. The filmmakers can put face-planting horses on-screen to their heart’s content — we get one in the prologue, just because they can — but after a while, we don’t feel it anymore.
And then comes the religious aftermath, including a rushed miracle that barely registers and a revisionist, redemptive finale that tries to do better justice to Jesus’ message than earlier versions.
Whatever else the filmmakers hit or miss, they need this last moment to work. Alas, it falls flatter than Judah’s horse in that opening scene.
Caveat Spectator: Some intense battle, chariot-racing violence and disturbing images. Teens and up.