The grandiose entertainment of a good old sword and sandals tale has never really waned in popularity over the years. Of course, sometimes there’s a resurgence (I think we can all point to Gladiator this time around even though it is over a decade old now) but it tends to be a solid time-filler on TV schedules. Programmes featuring Hercules and Xena have come and gone, Game Of Thrones has gained many fans and then there are the likes of Spartacus: Blood And Sand, Rome and the occasional biblical tales that crop up, usually during relevant holidays. So it’s no surprise to see that Ben Hur was given the TV movie remake treatment. The surprise comes from the fact that it’s surprisingly staid and unexciting.
I guess the main point to make to people is that if you know and love the classic version (with Charlton Heston in the lead role . . . . . or some viewers may even prefer the version before that one) then stick with that. While this Ben Hur keeps the story pretty much the same, obviously, and has a few good acting turns it just doesn’t ever really transport you to an exciting world of fictitious, historical adventure.
Judah Ben-Hur is the son of a wealthy Jewish merchant and the best friend of young Messala until the two are separated when Messala is called to assume his duties for Rome. Many years pass and when Messala (played, in his adult incarnation, by Stephen Campbell Moore) returns to Jerusalem he is very different from how he used to be. Judah Ben-Hur (played by Joseph Morgan) tries to maintain the friendship but it’s clear that too much has changed. And then the journey begins. Fortune, both bad and good, sees Ben Hur removed from Jerusalem and then taking any opportunity to try and get back there, to have his revenge.
While Ben Hur doesn’t really look cheap or slapdash, it certainly doesn’t look as good as a few of the shows I mentioned in the first paragraph. There’s just something lacking, maybe it’s a bit of movie magic but maybe it’s something else – I couldn’t put my finger on it, sadly.
The script, by Alan Sharp, is okay and features the dialogue and speech patterns that you’d expect from such a tale while the direction by Steve Shill shows all that he feels needs shown and nothing more. None of the bigger moments are given any . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . oomph, for want of a better word. There are no highs and lows as the story progresses. Yes, the character experiences quite a turbulent journey but nothing has any emotional impact, be it anger, sadness, tension, excitement, etc.
The cast do quite well. Morgan is a bit of a disappointment in the titular role, to be honest, but Stephen Campbell Moore almost makes up for that with his enjoyable performance. Emily VanCamp, Alex Kingston and Kristin Kreuk do very well with their roles but Lucia Jimenez gets the best female part as Athene, a dangerous but also compassionate “whore”. Ray Winstone is very good in his role, as are Ben Cross and Simon Andreu, but Marc Warren is the most fun as a schemer who makes the most of the misfortunes he sees befalling others. Hugh Bonneville, as Pilate, and Art Malik also do very well, though the latter isn’t on screen for that long, sadly.
The tale itself is an excellent one, it’s just a shame that the telling of it is slightly lacking this time around.
Ben Hur is released on DVD on January 30th and comes with the unedited main feature (which, frustratingly, means that you get a middle section where you get to see what’s coming up in part two and then a recap of what you’ve just seen in part one) and a terribly inadequate “making of…” that runs for about 7 minutes.
DIRECTOR: STEVE SHILL
WRITER: ALAN SHARP (BASED ON THE NOVEL BY LEW WALLACE)
STARS: JOSEPH MORGAN, STEPHEN CAMPBELL MOORE, EMILY VANCAMP, KRISTIN KREUK, MARC WARREN, SIMON ANDREU, HUGH BONNEVILLE, ALEX KINGSTON, RAY WINSTONE, ART MALIK, LUCIA JIMENEZ
RUNTIME: 184 MINS APPROX