It’s inevitable, even for a critic, that you’ll hear something – good or bad – about a new film before you see it yourself. As a result I often make a point not to read other reviews or articles, if I plan to cover an upcoming release. However, with something like director Timur Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur – the remake of director William Wyler’s iconic 1959 Charlton Heston Biblical epic, which in turn was a retelling of the classic 1925 version featuring matinee idol Ramon Novarro – it was nigh on impossible not to hear something about it beforehand. Unfortunately in this case little of the pre-release talk was complimentary. So imagine my surprise when I saw the film and discovered that it’s actually not that bad. Ok, so it’s unlikely to win an astounding eleven Oscars – including Best Picture, Best Actor (Leading and Supporting) and Best Director – like the original did. But taken on its own merit the resulting film is quite effective, with even the iconic climatic chariot race managing to keep you on the edge of your seat until they cross the finishing line.
Ben-Hur tells the story of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) who – after he and his family are betrayed by his adopted Roman brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbel) – is cast into slavery. After many years Ben-Hur returns home a freeman, determined to face Severus in a final showdown in a Roman chariot race where there can only be one winner.
The real, overriding question where Ben-Hur is concerned, is why Paramount and MGM would see fit to let it be remade it in the first place. Sometimes you can, just about, understand why a director would want to reinterpret a past hit for a new, contemporary generation of film fans. But with something as famous as Ben-Hur – where its previous versions are considered masterpieces of the Hollywood epic – you might feel that it was a fool’s game for a filmmaker to tread the same ground yet again. Would there really be anything new to add? Well, the answer is no. There isn’t. This new film might be shorter than Wyler’s by almost an hour and a half – admittedly, a point in its favour – but other than that it’s all here: Ben-Hur’s encounters with Christ (Rodrigo Santoro), his time on a Roman slave ship and the final dramatic chariot race with his estranged, adopted Roman brother Severus, all feature as pivotal points around which the film’s story revolves.
This point however is also the film’s strength The fact is that if you’re a fan of the previous versions you are unlikely to want to sully your filmic palette with Bekmambetov’s vision. Which means the core audience of this new film will be a younger audience, unlikely to have seen, or even maybe heard of, the earlier ones. And with this in mind there is plenty here to appeal. As well as an appearance from the familiar face of Morgan Freeman – as the nomadic horse breeder Ilderim, who becomes Ben-Hur’s friend and mentor – there is enough romance, action and daring-do, to cater for both male and female viewers, and nothing so strong as to alienate a wider family / young teen audience: even the aforementioned appearance of Christ is done with enough dignity and reverence, that few but the staunchest Bible believers could find much to offend.
All-in-all this new Ben-Hur, though unlikely to topple Charlton Heston from his historic pedestal, is neither the disaster it so easily could have been. Just let’s hope they don’t decide to re-run this race yet again anytime soon.
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Writers: Lew Wallace (novel), Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley (screenplay)
Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbel, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro
Runtime: 125 mins