by Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
The new adaptaton of “Ben-Hur” delivers strong and entirely believable characters in a tale set across the first three decades in the First Century of the current era.
A great cast delivers stellar portrayals under the director of Timur Bekmambetov, whose previous work has not been nearly as accomplished as this outing. The tale’s first half-hour unfolds without hurry, allowing the main characters to become familiar and comfortable to the viewer. This includes a crucial horse race between the two leads that foreshadows future conflict.
Jack Huston is Judah Ben-Hur, giving a towering performance that spans a decade of eventful living. His adopted brother – Roman by ancestry – is Messala Severus, interpreted effectively by Toby Kebbell.
Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) is Judah’s love interest, while his sister Tizrah (Sofia Black-E’lia) is drawn to Messala. Ayetlet Zurir is beautiful as and relatable as Naomi, mother to Judah and Tizrah.
Naomi’s caution – flowing from the seeming-impossibility of love between a Roman and a Jew – drives a wedge within the household, leading Messala to leave to seek glory as a soldier for the emperor.
Pontius Pilate is played by Pilou Asbaek. With dramatic license, the pro consul is given longer tenure in Jerusalem than in most renderings of the Roman province’s history.
After a long absence, during which Judah and Esther have married, Messala returns to the Holy City as a key player in the Roman Army, if not an unquestioning servant of Pilate.
Moises Arias performs as Dismas, a young Zealot whom Judah and his family protect and nurse back to health after he is wounded in conflict with the occupying army. In rage at Rome’s tyranny, Dismas tries to kill the procurator, shooting from the protection of Judah’s home.
This triggers a strongly-presented and well-edited scene of chaos and horror for the Hurs, as Messala betrays those who had loved and reared him.
Judah endures years chained to the oars of a Roman galley, while Tizrah and Naomi disappear into the maw of Roman incarceration. Driven by hatred of Rome in general and Messala in particular, Judah survives a battle in the Ionian Sea, washing ashore in an isolated area where he encounters a band of charioteers and camp followers under the leadership of a charismatic, if world-weary, entrepreneur with his own grudges against Rome.
No surprise, Morgan Freeman delivers superbly as that man – Ilderim, an African with a stable of magnificent Arabian horses. One seriously ill. Judah nurses the creature back to health, gaining Ilderim’s gruding respect. (Freeman has double duty, providing a handful of narrative nuggets from start to finish, usefully connecting strands of the story.)
Judah plots his return to Jerusalem, seeking revenge on Massala. Thus is the stage set for cinematographer Oliver Wood, who recreates the chariot race scene his own way, without over-reliance on the 1959 version – save that both run right at 10 gripping minutes on the screen.
Marco Beltrami’s musical is apt and unintrusive; over closing credits, singer Andra Day brings us back to the modern era with “The Only Way Out.”
The new film draws on some of the strongest source material in literature and cinema. Lew Wallace’s novel — “Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ” – was the best-selling book of the Nineteenth Century. That story covered the entire life of its title character, whose fictitious existence overlapped the earthly years of Jesus of Nazareth.
Eventually Wallace’s story led to a 1925 film, a variety of theatrical productions, a television special and other re-tellings. Best known of all, of course, was the 1959 motion picture in which Charlton Heston soared as Judah and Stephen Boyd was memorably hateful as Messala. That film ultimately won 11 Academy Awards and ran around three-and-a-half hours.
The Burnett-Downey team with Bekmambetov at the helm deliver an efficient motion picture of two hours and five minutes. This version benefits from an early half-hour of sublime patience in the script by Kenneth R. Clark and John Ridley. Still, Jesus (portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro) actually gets a bit more screen time in this rendering.
The core of moral and spiritual teachings from the best-known Carpenter’s Son in history are, at least in this writer’s view, most aptly represented in the carefully presented post-chariot-race denoument.
All prior presentations of Wallace’s immortal tale were and remain memorable. One of the most enduring stories of all time is given fresh life – gaining a new audience for a new era — in the Burnett-Downey version of “Ben-Hur.”