After watching the trailer for this thing, I was trying my hardest to avoid watching this movie and after watching it, I must say it isn’t that bad. Sure, nothing will ever compare to the sweeping epics of decades past, but here we are in 2016 and Timur Bekmambetov came out with an enjoyable version of Ben-Hur. Should we stand by enjoyable? No, we should demand greatness, except greatness is hard to come by and enjoyable holds glimmers of greatness in it.
The reason why this film works is because of its glimmers of greatness. Both Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell pour everything they’ve got into their roles, making the dynamic between brothers turned antagonizers believable. Jack Huston is incredible in this film, even though the rest of actors around him aren’t, Huston pours his soul into the legendary role of Ben-Hur. Channeling the torture, motivation and revenge side to the tale of Ben-Hur, Huston does a tremendous work that shows greater things to come. No, Toby Kebbell is a different kind of beast, though lately he’s been type-cast as the villain, the man is still a tremendous actor. He’s got an emotional edge to him that many actors today are missing, whether its his portrayal of Koba, his magnificent turn on Black Mirror or his portrayal of Messala, he brings a true grit to whomever he plays. And together, with Huston bringing everything he’s got to the game and Kebbell bringing that raw emotion he always delivers with his performances, they’re magnetic when they’re together. Everyone else in this film isn’t any of those things and their characters are reduced to simple chores, plot-points or lackluster relationships.
As I’ve said that, let’s talk about the religious attachments this film has. Everything about the representation and relationships that have to do anything with Jesus in this film feel hokey. Simply, every time the camera pans to Jesus (before the crucifixion) he’s glowing and his hair is flowing as if he were in a Pantene commercial as he says words of wisdom. And then you’ve got Ben-Hur’s family who’s roles are reduced to glorified cameos. Unifying the worst of both worlds, you’ve got Ben-Hur’s wife played by Nazanin Boniadi who also happens to be a huge follower of Jesus. She’s a talented actress but she does nothing in this film, every time Ben-Hur meets up with her you just don’t care and every time we cut back to her story you struggle to remember her name because she doesn’t provide any substance to the story of Ben-Hur. Her single purpose in this movie is to tie Jesus and Ben-Hur together but by that time the film has ended and reflecting on her appearances you begin to notice they were all unnecessary.
Something quite odd that happens with this film is its ever-changing editing. Its starts off on a rough spot with some aggressive editing that is truly nauseating but by the end of the film it seems to flow nicely. Its almost as if they got two different editors to edit a half of the film each. There is also a terrible over-reliance with the use of first person view and GoPro’s cameras. Then again cinematographer Oliver Wood does capture some amazing shots that depict the scale of the epic tale that is Ben-Hur. But, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t riveted by the grand chariot race. Its an extraordinary display of rapid action and it works, it might go over-the-top at times but it works as a high-octane horse race to the death.
Is this version of Ben-Hur the best? Not even close. Is it good? Not really, but its definitely got a lot of good in it that many people are dismissing, both central performances are great and some of the cinematography does capture the grandiose scale of a true Hollywood epic. The rest of the acting is less than stellar and the depiction of Jesus in this film feels fake. Ben-Hur isn’t the mess you’ve been led to believe it is, but then again it isn’t great.