Film Review: BEN-HUR
Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Morgan Freeman
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov
Produced by Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin
Screenplay by Keith Clarke and John Ridley
Based on “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace
Cinematography by Oliver Wood
Edited by Dody Dorn, Richard Francis-Bruce, Bob Murawski
Music by Marco Beltrami
“Ben-Hur,” the fifth big-screen feature-length adaptation of the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace (there were two silent film versions, in 1907 and 1925; an animated version in 2003, in which Charlton Heston provided the voice of Judah Ben-Hur and which was Heston’s last film; and the 1959 live-action version starring Heston), is a solid, rousing, action-packed, more literal, more realistic, less preachy-religious and consistenly entertaining success, providing a quality Roman Empire-era tale for theaters toward the end of the traditional summer season.
Besides standing solidly as a well-produced, directed, acted and written film that also manages to impart several important messages, themes and morals about such basic aspects of life such as love, life itself, family, honor, dignity, retribution, loyalty, standing up for your beliefs, good versus evil, racism, persecution, bigotry, ignorance of other belief systems, the dangers of run-amok abusive power, the dangers of imperialism and colonialism, and the simple powers of peace and love overpowering war and hatred, “Ben-Hur” features a grounded, impressive, stand-out and break-out performance from lead actor Jack Huston, 33, of England, United Kingdom, as Judah Ben-Hur. That’s not surprising, though—Huston is the grandson of film producer, director, writer and actor John Huston; the great-grandson of film actor Walter Huston; the nephew of film director and actor Danny Huston; and the nephew of film director and actor Anjelica Huston. Not a bad pedigree for a young actor, indeed.
Huston ably, solidly and confidently plays Judah Ben-Hur as a reliable, likeable and amiable Jewish prince in a Jerusalem lorded over in an ugly, brutal and thuggish manner by the Roman empire, all evil, hateful, racist, and intent on dominating its territories through ignorance, violent persecution, violence in general, fear, theft and even random, psycho executions of innocent citizens. For years, Ben-Hur lives a life of ease, comfort, riches and general simplicity in Jerusalem, comfortable in his spacious palatial perch with his family—his loving mother Naomi (a solid, loving performance by Ayelet Zurer); his girlfriend Esther (a beautiful, strong, independent character played well by Nazanin Boniadi); his sister Tirzah (an also-beautiful, independent and strong character played well by Sofia Black-D’Elia); and—here’s where the trouble starts—his slightly unhinged, uncontrollable, power-mad and unstable adoptive brother and childhood friend Messala, who leaves the family’s life of ease to be a soldier in the Roman army.
Messala, not intent on living his days amid his family’s wealth, comfort and higher standing in society, crazily joins the Roman army—against the protests of Judah—and drastically, tragically changes—to the point of eventually betraying Judah and his entire family—the family, it should be noted, that raised him. The comparisons to the traitorous turns by Fredo Corleone and Salvatore Tessio in “The Godfather”—faithful family members who turned on their families with tragic, life-altering results—are clear, as is the message: To act against your family is unconscionable, unforgivable, indefensible and inexcusable, and an act that will result in tragic, life-altering results. Another important message is also clear from Messala’s horrible change: Anyone seduced and lured to power and power-mad armies of destruction, betrayal, deceit and unchecked power and persecution will eventually meet a horrible, terrible end, as there is no way out, no path to anything good, no happy ending for those who join, embrace and control such lunatic, idiotic and destructive forces.
Through a series of interesting story and plot developments that involve rebels and an underground rebel movement nobly and courageously fighting the repressive Roman regime, Messala crazily, irrationally and dangerously completely turns on his family, destroying their life of comfort, sending them to exile and imprisonment and possible death, and sentencing Judah—his brother—to horrendous slavery aboard a military galley ship at sea. There, Judah is simply a slave literally and figuratively chained to his seat in a grimy, dingy, generally horrible galley where he spends his days rowing, along with dozens of others, and rowing and rowing. If they don’t row hard and fast, they’re whipped. If they also don’t be careful, instant death is always just a few feet away. It’s a far cry from his life of riches, ease and comfort in his former palace, and the depictions of Judah aboard the galley ship are striking, powerful messages about the inherent horrors of repression, slavery, craziness, power-mad rulers and the simply insane dangers of dictators and violent armies run entirely amok.
After a powerful, action-packed, harrowing sequence—one of several action sequences that stand out strongly in the film—in which Judah’s ship is attacked, rammed and eventually destroyed at sea during a battle, Judah is rescued by a rich, tough—but ultimately sympathetic—sheik, Ilderim, who takes Judah in, treats his injuries, feeds him, rehabilitates him, and takes care of him. After Ilderim—who knows the goodness and value of Judah but is also fearful that harboring an escaped prisoner could threaten his stability, riches and life of comfort—threatens to turn Judah back to the Romans, Judah makes a deal with Ilderim to compete in a chariot race to earn back his honor—and take revenge on Messala. Ilderim sees something in Judah, helps train him, and agrees to support Judah in a chariot race against Messala and others in the sprawling, massive arena.
And that leads, of course, to the chariot race. In this “Ben-Hur,” the race is everything moviegoers could hope it could be—suspenseful, also harrowing, action-packed, somewhat violent (but never too gruesome), breathtaking, exciting and as thrilling as, well, a chariot race. This ten-minute, incredibly intricate, difficult-to-film and technically, physically, athletically and film-oriented challenging sequence is filmed with all of the vigor, strength, daring and complexity that filmgoers would hope to find, resulting in another instant-classic, thrilling scene that holds its own to previous attempts to capture this race. There are camera angles from above, beneath, behind and on-board the chariots; thunderous, bellowing horses galloping at highly-dangerous speeds and angles; chariots twisting, turning, falling, flipping and racing around a huge oval track at also-highly-dangerous speeds and angles; bodies flying above and beneath the chariots and horses (according to one report, no one was killed filming this sequence—there were indeed deaths of stuntmen associated with chariot race filming in the 1959 film—but there were some non-life-threatening injuries); horses flying through the air as well (CGI horses, of course); and, when all are composed, choreographed, drawn and acted together in a grand, epic combination of live-action, risky cinematography, stuntwork, stunt choreography and action, the sequence is a dazzling, breathtaking scene to behold.
Amid the tales of family, war, retribution, revenge, love and honor, Judah and Messala and others in Jerusalem also occasionally run across the kind, noble, non-violent, educational and anti-war preachings, lessons and actions of a carpenter in the city, Jesus of Nazareth, who shows up through the story to impart his lessons of peace and love. Jesus (a grounded, down-to-earth and controlled performance by Rodrigo Santoro) in this film has a somewhat more prominent role, but he is still a supporting character, despite Jesus’ importance to influencing Judah’s feelings. The foundation of the story is really the relationship between Judah and Messala, and that story carries the film. To the film’s credit, the scenes with Jesus avoid obvious, heavily-religious, overly-spiritual and gloppy sentiment and romanticizing, and instead the story takes a more literal, historical and simple story-based approach to Jesus, presenting him not as a savior or messiah, but as, simply, a humble carpenter, working amid the bustle and hustle of Jerusalem just like everyone else. Thankfully and fortunately, there are no oddball, weird, overdone touches like heavenly singing, halos, background choruses or over-written sermons regarding Jesus, saving the film from being preachy, teachy and pounding people over the head with offensive religious proselytizing. Always, the best method to impart lessons is not to shove it down peoples’ throats, is not to bang people over the head, and is not to overdo it in terms of evangelical, intelligence-insulting preaching, but rather simply present the facts with grounded, intelligent, common-sense and pragmatic facts and statements. That is exactly what “Ben-Hur” does with the Jesus character, his role in the film and the character’s role in the story, plot and character development.
This story is a largescale, epic, sprawling tale, and director Timur Bekmambetov, screenwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley, and producers Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson and Joni Levin have wisely constructed a film ready-set for modern-day audiences that keeps things moving briskly, adheres to the original source but does indeed bring solid, impressive changes to the script, story and characters that keeps the film original and fresh and definitely, defiantly not a repeat or rehash of the previous versions, and uses technological advancements to actually improve on and enhance the powerful action sequences. There is CGI, of course, but there is also much live-action work mixed with the CGI to keep things real, grounded and organic. That balanced mix of computer-generated-imagery and live-action stuntwork works well in “Ben-Hur,” as it has in hundreds of modern-day films, and that new balance of technology and real-life work is presented well and successfully in this film.
Screenwriters Clarke and Ridley have changed some aspects of the script and story, with more of an emphasis on the simple issue of forgiveness, which was actually one of the major themes of Wallace’s original book, and which was somewhat overshadowed by the more simple and one-dimensional issue of revenge in the 1959 film.
“It’s going to be different in the sense that the original writer Keith Clarke wrote an amazing script and then went back to the Lew Wallace novel and really excavated the relationship between the two main characters, Ben-Hur and Messala,” Ridley told ComingSoon.net. “It’s interesting to a degree. It’s kind of like going after Jimi Hendrix, because there are things about the 1959 movie that we think we remember, there are things that really happened, including obviously the chariot race, so it’s going to be different in the sense that we’re not really trying to completely chase the movie people remember but there are elements of that movie: the heart of the film, the emotional drive of the film that we want to try to bring to a whole new audience. I think it’s an interesting project. It’s certainly challenging. It’s certainly one that people are going to come into with expectations, but like anything you do, you gotta exceed those expectations to a degree and also not worry about them because at its core, we hope and believe that we’ve got something that’s unique.”
“I read the script. And suddenly I understood this story is not what I expected,” director Bekmambetov told The Bendigo Advertiser. “It’s not a remake, it’s an interpretation of the famous book.”
“The style comes from the script and the tone of the movie,” Bekmambetov told /Film. “For example, in ‘Ben-Hur,’ it’s very, very different. The visual concepts are very different, because it was very important, for this project, following John Ridley‘s (‘12 Years a Slave’) script, to make it as grounded as possible and as real as possible. In the whole movie, there’s not one slow-motion shot [Laughs]. It’s handheld, no huge crane shots, slow-motion, or whatever. It’s a very grounded style of filmmaking, which was important.”
“No matter what, people will compare it [to the 1959 film], and there’s no way you can survive comparisons made to the classical movies,” Bekmambetov smartly says in his interview with /Film. “People will not compare us to the movie, but to the dream, the memory [of the movie]. The movie should be very different in order to survive, and that’s why Ben-Hur is very realistic. It’s a realistic, deep drama, not a huge tentpole attraction. It’s just drama.”
Bekmambetov added that the film is “not Ben-Hur’s story, it’s Ben-Hur and his brother’s story,” according to /Film. Bekmambetov’s hope is that audiences care about both characters, /Film notes.
And Ridley and Bekmambetov are entirely correct, on-point, accurate—and intelligent—in their comments. This entire version of “Ben-Hur” is just what the smart writer and director say it is—grounded, realistic, non-tentpole, non-spectable, non-preachy, unsentimental (in a good way), and wholly a straightforward—but still entertaining—drama. The film is a realistic, historical drama, to its credit. And speaking of credit, credit should go to Bekmambetov, Ridley, Clarke, the producers and the actors—who also smartly keep things equally grounded and realistic, even Morgan Freeman, who sometimes loses himself in his own aura and ego—for taking this somewhat simple, reality-based and non-preachy overall approach to this version of “Ben-Hur.” Taking this straightforward approach has resulted in a fresh, original and even inventive take on this enduring story.
Credit also needs to go to cinematographer Oliver Wood—who also keeps things solidly grounded and realistic–and, thankfully, as Bekmambetov wisely noted, avoids sappy, tacky and goopy touches such as slow-motion, frenzied editing, too-close-up editing or overlit, overdramatic lighting and camera angles. Wood keeps things simple, straightforward and realistic, too, keeping with the tone of the film. Music composer Marco Beltrami provides a, yes, powerful, thundering score—but, also, in a managed, non-tacky manner that does not overpower scenes, actors or sequences. Think John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith at their more controlled, even-handed approaches—Beltrami knows just where to turn on the volume, but he also knows when to stand back, lower the volume and be a supporting player at the right moments. And, also fortunately, editors Dody Dorn, Richard Francis-Burke and Bob Murawski avoid the dangers and pitfalls of too many modern-day editors, avoiding that crazed, frenzied style in the action sequences and preferring to let the action (and, yes, the CGI) speak for itself as realistically as possible. The beautiful scenery is provided by actual locations in Rome and Italy, and some breathtaking landscapes in North Dakota. The set for the chariot sequence was constructed on a soundstage, and much credit needs to go out to the set designers, production designers, art directors, costumers, stuntmen, actual chariot drivers, carpenters and builders and artists who worked on that particular set—the arena, chariots, horses, crowds (CGI-enhanced, of course), costumes and props for the chariot sequence—as for the rest of the film, too—are superb, beautifully-designed, wonderfully-presented, lavish and humble at the same time, and worthy of what audiences would expect in a Roman Empire-era tale.
“Ben-Hur” recalls similar modern-day films such as Ridley Scott’s classic “Gladiator” (2000), “Troy” (2004), and “300” (2006)—all solid, more-grounded, more-realistic (in a certain sense and manner for the somewhat more fantastical “300”) tales of war, vengeance, retribution, forgiveness, love and family.
“Ben-Hur” builds to a powerful, forgiving third act that will let audiences leave the theater invigorated, upbeat and positive—yet still filled with thoughts about how, alas, the same lessons, messages, themes and morals of Wallace’s original story and this film version of the story still hold true, stand fast and are frighteningly relevant to today’s world of 2016, as crazed, power-hungry, psycho, completely insane leaders, dictators, despots, tyrants and politicians still rule, run amok and wreak havoc. In “Ben-Hur,” Judah, Messala, Jesus and the other lead characters realize this, but they also realize they must continue their fight for good and against evil together, as a strong family, living to fight another day, to continually battle the evil that men and women do. There’s little to argue against when audiences leave “Ben-Hur” wanting to be reunited with their family, wanting to do good in a non-preachy, common-sense manner, and wanting to live and fight another day. And those are the emotions filmgoers will be left with when they leave “Ben-Hur,” and in the case of this entertaining film, that’s a great way to leave the movie theater.