When the story you’re telling has already been adapted into a movie that earned 11 Oscars including Best Picture, you’re stepping into a fairly large shadow. While Timur Bekmambetov’s new take on Ben-Hur doesn’t eclipse William Wyler’s 1959 film (which was itself a remake; Lew Wallace’s book had been adapted in 1907 and 1925 as silent pictures), but it does hold its own by skillfully balancing its populist, action flick with a message of love and forgiveness. The new movie sports a remarkably strong first act that even delves into themes of peace versus social justice, and it provides a lot of shading between Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his brother-turned-enemy Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). As the film wears on, it begins to lose some of its depth, but still manages to create a rousing chariot race and finish on a thematically satisfying note.
Judah Ben-Hur is a privileged Jew living in Jerusalem in 25 A.D. with his adopted brother Messala, who, although he loves Judah and is in love with Judah’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia), he resents Judah’s title and position. Messala goes out to find his own way in the world and comes back three years later a successful soldier for the Roman Empire. He pleads with Judah to name the zealots that could endanger the life of Messala’s commander, Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), but Judah refuses. When an attempt is made on Pilate’s life, Judah and his family are blamed, and Messala sends Judah away to slowly die on a slave ship. Judah eventually finds his way to freedom and to the employ of the wealthy African Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), who hires Judah to be his chariot racer and win back his freedom by defeating Messala in the arena. Throughout Judah’s story, he continues to cross paths with a young carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro).
Although the movie opens on the chariot race between Judah and Messala, it quickly cuts back eight years to the time when they were close, and Bekmambetov doesn’t rush this part of their lives. While I’m sure it may have been tempting to get to the conflict and throw Judah into the action of the slave ship, the movie wisely invests in the kinship between the two men so that we feel what will be lost when they eventually become enemies.
Moreover, Bekmambetov spends time delving into the political climate of Roman-occupied Jerusalem and the movie becomes surprisingly topical as characters argue over the value of peace versus social justice. Judah, a wealthy man shielded from the struggles of daily life in the city, can’t understand the position of the “zealots” who want to use violence to oust the Romans from the city. It’s a sharp comment on privilege, and how those who are privileged would prefer to keep the status quo than join the fight for justice.
Unfortunately, once the movie gets Judah on the slave ship, it loses some of its nuance. Judah becomes motivated by revenge and hatred, and Messala never seems to feel even slightly conflicted that he ruined the lives of his adopted family. It’s a disservice to both characters and makes their journeys just a little too easy; they become one-dimensional figures in a revenge play. Additionally, the concepts of social justice and peace also become lost in the shuffle, although to the film’s credit, it skillfully weaves in the Jesus narrative without being overbearing.
Some of the trailers have tried to sell Ben-Hur as a Christsploitation film in the same vein as this year’s Risen, but Bekmambetov handles Jesus with a respectable amount of subtlety. It’s necessary to weave him into Judah’s story so that when Jesus appears near the end, it’s not totally random, but Bekmambetov is rarely heavy-handed. The presence of Jesus in Ben-Hur is what transforms the movie from a revenge tale to a forgiveness tale, and it gives the conflict a larger human scope. While the story is driven by revenge and it makes for a rollicking good conflict, what Judah learns from Jesus forges a happy ending that’s found not in defeating one’s enemy but in loving one’s brother.
But until you get to that happy ending, Ben-Hur is fairly comfortable as a swords-and-sandals action-drama, but even here, Bekmambetov shows a surprising amount of restraint. Keep in mind, this is the same director who had Abraham Lincoln use cows as weapons in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and had a fraternity of assassins take orders from a quilt in Wanted, and yet the only place he really goes nuts is with the chariot race, which is appropriately insane and dangerous. When he’s on the slave ship with Judah, rather than pan out and show ships ramming into each other, Bekmambetov keeps the action focused largely on Judah’s POV, so the scene feels claustrophobic and oppressive. While the director can’t give up all his loony touches (the ship that rams Judah’s galley has a screaming Roman soldier attached to the bow), he’s also not trying to make 300: Rise of an Empire.
Where Bekmambetov lets loose is in the chariot race, which is one of the most impressive action scenes of the year. Even though we know how it’s going to end (and in a lesser film, the ending of the chariot race would be the end of the movie), Bekmambetov still makes it a rousing spectacle complete with all the destruction and mayhem a PG-13 film will allow. He gets some exhilarating camera angles, but always maintains a strong sense of geography as the chariots clash and crash.
At a brisk 124 minutes, no will mistake Bekmambetov’s Ben-Hur for Wyler’s 3-and-a-half hour epic, and that’s okay. For what Bekmambetov wishes to accomplish, he succeeds far beyond what I expected his Ben-Hur to be. It’s a film that’s got two strong lead performances, a terrific first act, an exciting chariot race, and a message of forgiveness. While I wish it maintained its strong characterizations and topical themes throughout the story, Ben-Hur is still an admirable contender in the summer movie arena.