Following a betrayal at the hands of his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Jewish prince of the name Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), is stripped of his title, separated from his family and sold into slavery. Following five gruelling years at sea, circumstance allows Judah to travel to Rome, where he intends to seek revenge, within the city’s famed colosseum.
Upon informing a close friend of mine that I actually enjoyed the remake of Ben-Hur, he responded two days later (via text), with this statement: “I’ve got to bring this up again. I don’t know how you think Ben-Hur is better than Gladiator. Did you say that you would give Ben-Hur a 3/5? I’m just really lost by how you could say that. I thought you had a good taste in films dude.”
Suffice to say, he will remain anonymous. But the truth is, I do appreciate masterworks such as A Matter of Life and Death or The Master and perhaps more importantly, I believe that I am able to determine the quality of a film fairly, without preconceived bias. Whilst watching Timur Bekmambetov’s glossy remake of the 1959 classic, it was apparent to me personally, that despite the needless 3D effects and predictably frenetic denouement, the nuts and bolts of what made the original so essential, remain.
Strangely enough, it is the thematic concerns of screenwriters Keith Clarke (The Way Back) and John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), which provide this remake with an actual reason to exist. In such a world which is divided by war and plagued by inequalities towards race and gender, it is the inherent messages of Christianity, which surprisingly shine through. In particular, forgiveness lies at its heart. In society today, people are insulted and often respond by attempting to match that insult with a acidic utterance of their own, which in turn, fuels only hatred. Albeit a fictional film (interwoven around fact), Ben-Hur conveys messages that people so desperately need to hear: that you should “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and “bless those who curse you” (Luke 6:28). I am not utilising this opportunity to satisfy my own religious agenda, but due to the state in which the world currently stands, it is vital to reinforce the need behind some good, old-fashioned love. And the film itself seems to agree, by actively informing people that forgiveness should be available to anyone (despite the committing of heinous crimes) and that anybody has the capacity to change.
Contrary to the original film, Jesus Christ features with a far more prominent role here. I imagine this is to connect with faith-based audiences and repair the wounds left by Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a film which left many Christians angry at Hollywood, as a result of the film’s “inventive interpretation” of the Bible. But to my surprise, Ben-Hur succeeds by allowing Rodrigo Santoro’s portrayal of Jesus to flourish in a variety of sequences. Christianity’s views are not diluted, but sit side by side the film’s epic spectacle, earning an emotional payoff which graces the film with an unexpected poignancy sorely missing from a roster of blockbusters in 2016.
Erstwhile, 2016’s Ben-Hur is also unexpectedly able to improve upon the previously minor part of Esther, as Nazanin Boniadi equips her with a strong voice and an actual presence within the narrative – despite the era in which the film is set. But despite a competent script, the film’s main disappointment is its casting – save for the ever reliable Morgan Freeman of course, who has ultra-cool dreadlocks. Tent-pole filmmaking generally requires star power, otherwise a film can often fail financially. And as of August 12th 2016, Ben-Hur has amassed $65.8 million against the production budget of a cool $100 million. Ouch. It isn’t that Jack Huston performs terribly, but upon the revelation that Tom Hiddleston was originally considered for the role, you can’t help but miss the nuance and presence that Hiddleston would have likely brought to the role. It’s the film’s co-stars who constantly threaten to turn this into a melodramatic mess.
Despite being the remake of an apparently legendary classic (I confess, I am yet to watch it), 2016’s Ben-Hur does possess a reason to exist: to spread messages of love and forgiveness within our broken world. It may often feel like a B-movie, complete with a mediocre cast and occasionally weak dialogue, but the film’s chariot sequence is most certainly the reason to watch this, and on the silver screen too.
Ben-Hur is out in cinemas now!