Film: “Ben-Hur”; Director: Timur Bekmambetov; Cast: Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell; Rating: *****
A remake makes sense only if it tells a story worth re-telling and it tells it in a way that the original could not. By this reckoning, the new adaptation of the Biblical tale of rivalry is an outright winner.
It takes the well-worn tale away from its old world habitat and converts it into something kinetic and compelling and also very engaging. You just can’t take your eyes off the goings-on which grip the characters’ destinies with such deft persuasion, you are left with no choice but to flow with the furious elemental drama.
The tale of Judah Ben Hur (Jack Huston) and Messalla (Toby Kebbell) benefits immensely from the presence of the two young and fresh actors. In one word, the two leads are riveting.
Charlton Heston in the title role in the original Ben Hur was stiff and excessively brawny. Jack Huston’s “Ben-Hur” is a thoughtful portrait of power under presence. When he is made a slave in a Roman ship for five years, we see Judah’s suffering and his fortitude. He won’t give up.
Director Timur Bekmambetov holds the reins of the epic storytelling as sturdily and liberally as Judah in the climactic chariot race. The chariot race is in fact, the most posh and most gripping portrait of grace under pressure seen in recent cinema. As the duo battle it out, the camera captures their grapple in soul-stirring waves of thrills.
The camera work by Oliver Wood serves as an accomplice and a continual ally to the director’s powerhouse visuals. The screen virtually explodes before our eyes in frames of flames, bringing to our movie-going experience the kind of yoked pastiche of drama and spectacle seldom seen before.
A word about the 3D effects. For the first time I saw the technique being applied without objects thrown into our face merely because they can. Even in the thrilling chariot race the chariots don’t jump out of the screen into our laps.
There are visuals of great suffering as the Roman clampdown on the Jews, dragging Judah’s entire aristocratic family onto the streets. Jesus Christ (played with hypnotic compassion by Rodrigo Santoro) is featured as a man on the street providing a healing touch to a wounded civilization.
With astonishing fluency, the director makes suffering salvation and redemption seem like blood brothers. There is also a dangerously subversive subliminal statement in the original Biblical story on what catastrophic damages can be caused when a child from a lower class is brought up as a son in a privileged family.
Providentially, Messala’s brutality gets a redemptive closure at the end. In this day and age of epidemic cynicism, “Ben-Hur” makes us contemplate with joy and amazement the power of cinema to recreate drama and passion without looking self-important.
The film’s scale is distinctly epic. And yet it is the human drama that I carried home.
The chariot race, incredibly thrilling as it is, is not about horses and hooves. It is about two men who were divided by fate and morality simply because they were not born of the same mother are now using the sports arena to settle personal and political scores.
The two main actors infuse their roles with wondrous brio and empathy. The supporting cast, especially Morgan Freeman as Judah’s ally after near-death, is also outstanding.
This thundering drama is the epic motion picture of the year. It makes our own acclaimed costume dramas like “Baahubali” and “Bajirao Mastani” look like amateur home videos.