This is the third time the story of Judah Ben-Hur – the Jewish prince betrayed and consigned to a Roman slave galley before seeking revenge on his adopted brother, Messala – has been adapted for the big screen, following the 1925 silent version and William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar-laden classic. But strangely, it’s the least epic and cinematic version of them all.
There’s no Ultra Panavision widescreen or lavish production design here; Ben-Hur 2016 is completely devoid of the grandeur you’d expect and resembles a telemovie. Which begs the question: why bother if you’re not prepared to make it, well, “bigger than Ben-Hur“?
The opportunity to reimagine Ben-Hur as an event movie spectacle for a modern audience has been squandered by director Timur Bekmambetov, which is also odd. The Russian filmmaker gave us the visually creative fantasy epics Nightwatch and Daywatch, before bringing his crazy and dynamic style of action to Hollywood with Wanted. That his Ben-Hur is so listless is disappointing – even the legendary chariot race set piece (which is what you’ve paid to see) is over before you can make sense of its chaotic editing.
The other major problem is that Jack Huston is a bland Ben-Hur, with none of the gravitas and agonising that Charlton Heston brought to the role. Toby Kebbell fares better as Messala, and even looks like a Roman bust (which is mentioned in the film), but the characters are as perfunctory as the production. Even Jesus is consigned to a cameo, and Morgan Freeman with Pedator dreadlocks just invites laughter.
Streamlined to a lean two hours (half as long as its ’59 predecessor) to fit today’s short attention spans, this Ben-Hur is watchable but redundant, and unlikely to turn up on a loop every Easter.
In cinemas: August 25, 2016
Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov