Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) loses everything after his adopted brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell), now an officer in the Roman army, returns to Jerusalem and accuses the young prince of treason. Stripped of his title and separated from his wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) and family, Ben-Hur must endure years of slavery on a galley at sea. When fate brings the estranged brothers to an epic and deadly chariot race, Ben-Hur finally gets the chance to exact vengeance on the man who destroyed his life.
Everyone has heard of the original Ben-Hur from 1959, the film that is shown on TV seemingly every Easter. Its original running time is roughly 3.5 hours but is usually much longer and/or edited for TV. It’s understandable why people wouldn’t watch a 5 hour film from 1959 around Easter time (at least that’s why I haven’t seen it). It might not be Easter now but here’s a smaller dose of Ben-Hur, clocking in at just over 2 hours. Now why did they decide to remake this? Who knows but remaking things is apparently a big thing nowadays.
Some of you may already know the story but for those who don’t, at least here, it’s about a pair of brothers named Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) and the adopted Messala Severus (Kebbell). After he is betrayed by Messala, Judah is separated from his wife and family and becomes a slave. In order to secure his freedom and get his chance at revenge against Messala, he must compete against him in a deadly chariot race. The plot basically leads up to this. The difference in each film’s running time is probably the removal of some stuff in between, represented by time jumps.
The film attempts to establish the Judah and Messala relationship early on by emphasizing their differences in upbringing and beliefs. This was meant to foreshadow what would inevitably happen later but this didn’t quite work because there wasn’t enough of a divide. The film did not devote quite enough to them as their scenes felt rushed. Judah and Messala were both principled characters which was made very evident in their interactions with others. This made their inevitable confrontation not make as much sense and harder to understand. This also took away the impact from their final confrontation.
The film just wanted to get to the chariot race badly so it rushed through Judah’s slave period as well. We didn’t really get to see the hardship he had to face as time jumped between where he started and where he ended, spending most of his time as a slave on a ship. This ship scenes were great to watch as they did a great job at creating a feeling of dankness and claustrophobia. This was further emphasized by the sheer scope from many glances outside a small window below, making him feel even smaller compared to what was around him. This made the moment of the ship’s destruction even more impactful, seeing what was his captors meet their demise.
This moment of course led Judah to a man named Ilderim (Morgan Freeman). He becomes a mentor of sorts for Judah as Judah knows about horses and Ilderim knows about chariot racing. Seeing his usefulness, the two form a partnership.Having Freeman in an older mentor role is not that much of a stretch for him as he has done this countless other times. He’s a great actor but it was easy to get the impression that he was phoning it in here as there’s wasn’t much to his role anyway. Even with that, there was just something about him that made him feel out of place.
Ben-Hur’s wasn’t the only thing going on here as the film followed it’s own version of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro). He only appeared in a few scenes where Judah would run into him by chance. The film didn’t go too far with Jesus as he served no other purpose but to teach Judah kindness and forgiveness through his random acts of kindness. Despite that, it will still hard to ever care about him since his subplot just feels added on.
The climax of the film was the chariot race. This was the only exciting part of the film. It was entertaining to watch and epic in scale. Seeing that most of the film was rushing to this point, this sequence was well shot and felt mostly realistic other than a few CGI touches here and there. The fact that we pretty much knew how it was going to end didn’t take away from its intensity. It would have been nice to have seen more. The worst part of the film has to be the writing. A lot of the dialogue is either cheesy or bad and the plot is full of holes. This had an effect on the acting which was average at best but that was just because of the writing.
Overall, the chariot race was the most exciting moment in the film but the lead up to it felt rushed, not giving us a chance to ever connect with the characters or the story.