Running at just over two hours, the 2016 Ben-Hur is officially the world's shortest epic. The great race here isn’t the story’s famous chariot race, but the race to get it all over and done with in just over two hours.
The idea is, if you take it fast enough, no one will notice how creaky your story is and how lame your film is. But this just makes it thin and unsatisfying, and still dull. Oh that’s the crucifixion, that’s the sea battle, that’s the chariot race. Oh, now it’s over! A satisfying movie isn’t just a rush to its highlights and then rushed set pieces.
That is one of the film’s problems. Another is its antique source material and the ghosts of a couple of classic earlier movies hovering over it. General Lew Wallace’s incredibly popular and sincere story about the conflict of the Jews and the Romans at the time of Christ, the conflict between the Jews and the Christians, and the conflict between best friends just plain hasn’t aged too well. It’s a Sunday school Victorian-era Christian parable, and a Bible and a moral lesson, spiced up with a lot of adventure action, not an easy sell in 2016.
Ben-Hur is a remake of two very famous classic movies. The first two are record holders – Fred Niblo’s 1925 Ramon Novarro silent epic Ben-Hur as the most expensive silent movie ($4 million) and William Wyler’s 1959 remake as the winner of 11 Oscars, an all-time record until equalled in 1998 by Titanic
Alas, the 2016 film is unlikely to go down in history books. On the cost front, it is lavish and expensive enough at $100 million, but done on a careful budget, relying on digital images to save money on real stuff. And on the Oscar front, it probably will be forgotten about entirely by voting time in December. I’ve forgotten it now and it’s September.
It does follow in the footsteps of its predecessors though in one special way. It is populated with actors who are for the most part miscast and struggling, turning cartwheels (metaphorically!) to make it work. Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Toby Kebbell as Messala Severus, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus and Morgan Freeman as Sheikh Ilderim are all first-class actors and powerful screen presences, but no one could really say they are well cast. I’d like to say that they are good but all I can say is they don’t shame themselves.
Who gives the worst performance in the film? Well Pontefract-born Kebbell is the shakiest of the four male principals, seeming a bit actory and RADA. But the honour falls to the poor actress playing Hur – Esther - Nazanin Boniadi to be worst. OK, it’s not a competition, but if it was, she’d win. Let’s not blame the actress – let’s say it’s just The Curse of Hur. It’s a terrible role, but then all the women’s roles are poor, and badly written and undeveloped here.
The Ben-Hur/Messala half-brother betrayal, revenge, forgiveness story just isn’t working without some strong emotional pull. Huston and Kebbell pull lots of faces but can’t act their way out of the hollowness of their characters as written by Keith R Clarke and John Ridley. Huston never seems properly vengeful and Kebbell can’t bring off a villainous portrait of jealous betrayal.
If this key central relationship is thin and undernourished, it is a reflection of the whole adaptation. Wallace’s book is huge. The 1959 film runs 3 hours and 32 minutes. Hacking the material to two hours here just makes it feel light and flimsy. There is no room for the complex story arc to breath, no space for it to deliver its emotional and spiritual impact. Of course, the material is way out of its time, but for it to work at all, the film-makers have to show they believe in it, and somehow this vibe is missing.
It ends on its worst note: religious and moral uplift. If you forgive and believe all will be well for a happy ending. Unfortunately, and ironically, Ben-Hur’s happy ending sent me away unhappy from the cinema. Oh you made me lose a leg, I want to kill you with my sword from my sick bed, oh no I don’t, I still love you, we can go horse riding like we used to when we were lads! Please! It’s one of those movies that make you want to go home and kick the cat.
Admittedly the chariot race is startlingly well done, but somehow you know it’s all fake and CGI, and it proves no competition for either the 1959 one or the silent movie race. These are great races. This new one just plays like a video game.
Most damaging of all, the 2016 Ben-Hur just fails to deliver any magic on the visceral epic front.