In another Hollywood, one far removed from what it is today, a proposal to remake William Wyler’s Ben-Hur would have attracted the creme de la creme of actors, directors, writers and technicians. It would not be difficult to imagine someone like Benedict Cumberbatch auditioning for the title role, trying his damnedest to outdo Charlton Heston’s rendition of it in the 1959 epic. With his British-accented baritone, piercing eyes and oddly angular face, he might just have been able to make the new Ben-Hur his own. Of course, there would be the usual howls of protests against the ‘white-washing’ of one more role meant for a Middle-Eastern actor; but then as the great director Ridley Scott so eloquently put it, you can’t mount a big-budget film “and say my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.”
Incidentally, in spite of his penchant for being politically incorrect, Scott would have been perfect as the director of the modern-day Ben-Hur. After all, he was the one who brought about a brief resurgence of the so-called swords-and-sandals genre with Gladiator, in 2000. He was also the one who killed the resurgence, with Kingdom of Heaven, in 2005. And buried it, with such turkeys as Robin Hood (2010) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
Fortunately or not, the Hollywood of today is not a place where a Ben-Hur remake would attract A-list talents like Cumberbatch and Scott. So we have Timur Bekmambetov, a Kazakh director best known for the 2008 hit called Wanted (yes, that film in which James McAvoy learns how to fire a bullet in a curve, and Angelina Jolie tempts him with her curves). As Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince who is banished to a life as galley slave, we have Jack Huston, whose most memorable movie appearance was as Jennifer Lawrence’s paramour in American Hustle. As Messala, Ben-Hur’s adoptive brother and the Roman military tribune who sends he and his family to perdition, we have Toby Kebbel, who so memorably played the RocknRolla in Guy Ricthie’s RocknRolla in 2008.
As Jesus Christ, we have Morgan Freeman.
No, I am just joking. A black man can become US president, but we may have to wait a couple of decades more to see a black Jesus. We seem to be getting there, though. In this film, Jesus is played not by a Caucasian, but by an olive-skinned Brazilian. His name is Rodrigo Santoro, and you may remember him as Xerxes, the Persian emperor in 300. As someone who has been on both sides of the West Bank barrier, he could well try his hand in solving the Middle-East crisis.
Freeman plays Ilderim, a sheikh from Africa (of course!) who provides food, shelter and reams of advice to Ben-Hur. He is the saviour figure—the next best thing to Christ in the movie. For someone like Freeman, who has played Christ-like figures in more than a few movies, the role is a cakewalk. He chooses, instead, to sleepwalk through the film. Among the rest of the cast, only Nazanin Boniadi, the Tehran-born actress who plays Ben-Hur’s lady love, and the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer, who plays his mother, stand out. That is because the new Ben-Hur, like many of the big-budget movies of today, is not driven not by actors, but by special effects.
But even the effects are lacklustre. The computer-generated imagery used to recreate the Jerusalem of yore and the Roman circus is so sloppy that it often lends the visuals a fuzzy quality. And the 3D makes it worse.
As far as directing action sequences are concerned, Bekmambetov belongs to old-school Hollywood. He favours long shots of all kind—sweeping, aerial and tracking—to the quick cuts and the crazy-angle, shaky-cam shots made fashionable by the Bourne movies. It is a good thing for viewers, as it saves them a 3D-induced headache. It is a bad thing for the movie itself, because it makes the poor CGI look even poorer.
As for the chariot race, let’s say it meets expectations. The sequence, however, is shot in a workmanlike manner—it gives the feeling that the actors, directors and the crew really wanted to get it over with. And it does seem to get over quick.
In the post-Nolan era, no self-respecting filmmaker would go for a straight remake; they go for ‘re-imaginings’. Bekmambetov, too, reimagines the Ben-Hur saga: he changes the relationship dynamic between Ben-Hur and Messala, gives Jesus a bit more prominence in the plot, and does away with a couple of characters who were central to the 1959 epic. The changes may have made the storytelling easy, but they drain the story of coherence and believability. Some of the plot turns and characterisations are so farcical that it makes the story, which is based on the 1880 novel by Lew Wallace, seem far more far-fetched than it really is. Especially ridiculous is Danish actor Pilou Asbaek’s turn as Pontius Pilate—he looks like an American high-school bully, all grown up.
Also, the odds are that you will inwardly laugh, or perhaps wonder, at the dumbness of the choice of the song that plays over the credits. The song is ‘The only way out’ by Andra Day, and it is the kind of song that you expect at the end of a rom-com, not an epic historical drama.
But then, I found that the song does offer sane advice for those who haven’t made up their minds about whether to watch the new Ben-Hur. “I guess every story twists,” goes one stanza, “People tell me/let it go, oh, and forget.” Amen.
Post script: The run-time of the new film is 123 minutes—that’s 89 minutes less than the old one. I found the most interesting couple of minutes somewhere towards the middle of the screening. It came after the lights came on signalling interval, and right before the movie resumed. It was the trailer of the new Marvel movie, called Doctor Strange, and it had Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor. That’s three Oscar-nominees/winners in one superhero film, about a neurosurgeon who acquires magical powers. And it seems like a guaranteed moneymaker.
Now, why would Cumberbatch act in Ben-Hur anyway?
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbel, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro