Film Review: Ben-Hur

A long time ago, in a pre-Christian moral universe far far away, there were two brothers. One a Jewish prince, the other a Roman orphan. Their cultural differences could usher in a new era of toleration and understanding for their home town of Jerusalem, or it could lead them to tool up with chariots and smash one another into kibble. Only a 2016 remake of Ben-Hur could possibly figure it out. The itself story is pitched as a contest between imperial ambition and quiet decency.

Messala (Toby Kebbell) is the Roman solider and dignitary who leaves the family of his adopted brother Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) in order to serve the Empire. Judah remains at home, unwittingly coming into contact with various zealot freedom-fighters and rubbing shoulders with a little-known Jewish sect called 'Christianity'. Their leader has some far-out ideas about everyone being nice and sweet to one another. Some say it will never catch on, but those people aren't Pontius Pilate, the new governor of Judea, who believes the Jewish population must be cruelly put down in order to maintain rule. The results aren't pleasant for Judah Ben-Hur, and the scene is set for an almighty fraternal showdown.

This new Ben-Hur is as straightforward as they come - never really working up into anything truly spectacular despite containing both CGI good (its seafaring scenes) and not so good (the stadium sequences are a little too hygienic). Whilst the script is pedestrian through and through, it has more intelligence and tone than some recent biblical retellings. It's probably for the best that Gore Vidal didn't live to see this re-make, although one wonders what wry put-downs he would have spared for the film's, shall we say, less than pristine attention to period detail and uncomplicated take on the source material. Morgan Freeman's accent jars throughout - but this truly was a beige and largely inoffensive re-working of a story about people who were close to a man who some say truly was, the son of God.

Tom Duggins


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