Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are lifelong friends. Judah’s family treated Messala like a son but, when he leaves to be trained as a Roman Legionnaire, he returns an enemy of the Jews in Jerusalem. This rift ends with Judah’s arrest for treason and a life of a galley slave. Revenge becomes the food that keeps his spirit intact and he will return as “Ben-Hur.”
Think Ben-Hur-lite when you go in to see the latest film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 best seller, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. There have been, including the newest in the line, six film and TV versions of the iconic novel. The biggest, William Wyler’s 1959 epic, starred Charlton Heston and earned a record 11 Oscars and it hewed close to the original material, resulting in the 31/2 hour epic.
Now, to director Timurr Bekmambetov’s pared down version, adapted by Keith R Clarke and John Ridley, of one of the biggest bestsellers of all time. It highlights certain elements of the story but takes literary license to change things for convenience, dropping or changing entire sequences of the original story. First and foremost, the film is not an epic in any sense. It is like the Cliff Notes version of the story of Judah and his childhood best friend, Roman citizen Messala. They part ways when Messala leaves to join the Roman Legion. They live very different lives and, when the Roman returns to Jerusalem, it is in the lead of a Roman army. Then, he betrays his friend and destroys Judah’s life.
There are really two stories going on here. In parallel is the story of the three years when Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) preached brotherly love and “He who is without sin shall cast the first stone.” He crosses paths with Judah several times during his last years on mortal earth and His gentleness and kindness have a revelatory impact on the man who, before, sought only revenge.
At just over two hours run time, “Ben-Hur” feels rushed, glossing over much of the story in order to get to the big draw – the chariot race. This is done with some excitement and, surprisingly, uses little by way of CGI effects. The race, though, is a shallow replication of the far more exciting 1959 version. (Interestingly, the book was adapted into a play in 1907, complete with live horses and chariots on stage!)
Acting is OK with Jack Huston serviceable as Judah and Toby Kebbell doing a fair job as friend turned foe. Morgan Freeman, the film’s narrator at the beginning and, later, the man who gives Ben-Hur the chance to race his magnificent white horse team, Ilderim, lends his dignified presence to the proceedings. Production is fine but uninspired. This is the word that describes “Ben-Hur” best – uninspired. I give it a C+.
Laura did not see this film.
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