Film: “Ben-Hur”; Director: Timur Bekmambetov; Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Morgan Freeman, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbaek, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Moises Arias; Rating: ***1/2
Director Timur Bekmambetov’s “Ben-Hur” is a near masterpiece in its own way and one cannot compare it with the 1959 classic of the same name which won 11 Academy awards.
This one, a re-adapted, re-imagined version with a new interpretation of the 1880 novel “Ben-Hur: A tale of the Christ” by Lew Wallace, is the fifth film following two silent films that released in 1907 and 1925, the Academy Award-winning 1959 film and an animated version that released in 2003.
This live-action adaptation, like its earlier versions, has all the elements of the novel. It tells the story of a wronged man who lived in the time of Jesus, circa 33 AD, seeking revenge and redemption and with the chariot race as the highlight of the film. It also strikingly doubles up as a faith-film.
It is the tale of a Jewish Nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur and his rivalry with his Roman half-brother, Messala Severus.
Judah is falsely accused of sedition and Messala, a commander in the Roman army, subjects Judah to slavery. He also exiles Judah’s mother and sister to a leper’s colony. How Judah survives years of slavery and challenges Messala to a chariot race, while being forever changed after a series of encounters with Jesus, forms the crux of the tale.
The cast lack the physical heft that one is used to seeing in historical epics, nevertheless they are convincing and committed.
Jack Huston as Judah is charming. Toby Kebbell as Mesala with a facial scar on the right-side of his face matches him with his histrionics. Morgan Freeman in a supporting character as Sheikh Ilderim adds a new dimension to the role and is intriguing.
Nazanin Boniadi as Esther, Judah’s wife, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus, Sofia Black-D’Elia as Judah’s sister Trizah and Ayelet Zurer as Judah’s mother Naomi, play their parts with sincerity.
Director Bekmambetov’s script, written by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, is crisp and made with enough conviction and thoughtfulness, that minor issues like the costumes of the era can easily be overlooked. The chariot race, Christ’s suffering and his parting words to the world, convincingly depict moments that are curiously powerful and passionate.
Visually the film is grandly mounted, with computer-generated images and 3D effects meshing seamlessly with Oliver Wood’s cinematography. Unfortunately, with shaky camera movements and snappy edits, viewing is a bit disconcerting, at times.
Beltrami’s music enhances the viewing experience and, overall, as mentioned earlier, this is a well-made epic that gives you the essence of the subject, but is definitely not comparable to the earlier classic.