Thanks to Paramount Pictures, we had the opportunity to watch Ben-Hur before its Australian release in cinemas. This is our review of the film, but – as per usual – no matter what we say, we recommend that you still go to your local cinema and see the film because there is no better critic than yourself!
Look, we are going to be completely honest; this film wasn’t great. It didn’t make us mad, it didn’t incite revulsion. But it didn’t really give us anything good either. It was a Triple-M. Or a “Mediocre Money Machine”.
A lot of things can be and have been said about this incarnation of Ben-Hur, even before its release.
“It’s a bit out of place in this day and age, isn’t it?”
“Hey, isn’t that the movie that the Coen brothers spoofed in ‘Hail, Caesar!’?”
“Chariot race? Kinda reminds us of that science fiction film… you know, the first one with the pods and the racing in the desert and the kid with medichlorians.”
But for all of what it may be, it at least wasn’t muddled and confusing like a lot of other films that haven’t exactly been “great” this year. It knew what it wanted to say in its own watered down way, so there’s a gold star for Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) that he can pin wherever his heart desires.
But its biggest flaw and its most egregious sin is the same that causes the downfall of many films that can be added to the list of Razzie award nominees for this year; it is completely lazy. Lacking any sort of drive or effort in its script. It relies far too heavily on the actors, some of which are completely miscast.
Make no mistake, the issues with the cast were not their impeccable talent or their ethnicity, but rather the chemistry they each brought to a scene; how they all got along with each other to bring scenes to life.
With that in mind, each scene that Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) isn’t in, seemed to die, becoming uninteresting and flat. With a supporting cast that seems for the most part preoccupied with their own role, and a script that drips with melodrama and exposition, he manages to wring some fine performances from it by bolstering and working with his cast mates scene-for-scene. As an actor, he brings out the best in everyone around him.
Our villain is played by non other than Toby Kebbel (Warcraft, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) who seems to attract roles synonymous with generic misunderstood villainous “bad guys”, often set in a medieval, biblical or post-apocalyptic setting. He’s gotten himself typecast, and it’s a tragedy to watch as he re-plays the last eight years of his career in every role he takes.
Jesus (played by Rodrigo Santoro of 300) does make brief appearances. But his lines are generic, his locale unbelievable, his impact little-to-no-good. He is only there to appease the Christian fans who, disillusioned by the portrayal of God in films such as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah needed a cookie-cutter Christ to believe in again.
The chemistry that Huston does have with the rest of the cast is palpable, but is also undermined by the chemistry that the rest of the cast have with each other. Morgan Freeman‘s character is a bible-lands Coach Carter-esque Arabian horse master with an American accent, and absolutely zero reasons to coach Ben-Hur towards a chariot racing career in the grand circus. (the arena of which is also conveniently located just behind Golgotha, where, *SPOILER ALERT*, Jesus is crucified in the third act.)
The casting choices seemed to be made almost completely with revenue and image in mind, including the “big four”, with them being the characters of Ben-Hur (Huston, representing our generic hero character), Messalah (Kebbel, representing the stock villain, contrasting our hero), Jesus (Santoro, playing Jesus from “That Painting of White Jesus That Hangs At The Front Of Church” at Sunday School.), and Sheik Ilderim (Freeman, the one “Big Name” they have to sell to the audience) were there to affect the revenue of the film and not the creative aspect of the story. As a result, ends up crippling the potential for real chemistry and strong narrative in a film that should have been a well-crafted epic, given its impeccable source material.
Ben-Hur is not that different from a weak cordial. The 1959 classic and its source, the book by Lew Wallace, delivered us a powerful, high stakes tale of two men on a journey from one extreme to another. But the final result in this year’s edition is a spectacled neutering. It doesn’t have any strong ideas to grab hold of, it doesn’t have anything important to say, and the characters are weaker than my ninety-seven year old grandmother. Their motivations flimsy at best. And when you’re doing a remake of one of the most defining and memorable films of all time, you have to do better than what they’ve done. You have to be more than just “Politically Correct”.
…And please, Hollywood. Stop beating these dead horses over and over again.
Ben-Hur is now showing in cinemas