Film Review: Ben-Hur (2016)



The posters for Monty Python’s Holy Grail jokingly suggested that, such was the inadequate scale, ambition and quality of the picture, it “made Ben-Hur look like an epic”. Well, funnily enough, some forty years later, another Ben-Hur film has come along that has done the same, and much more, for even the most wearisome and threadbare movie. Timur Bekmambetov’s adaptation of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (now the third screen version) is so dreary and inconsequential it seems to take the form of some masochistic piece of self-endurance. It is such a complete and utter non-event you wonder what possessed the suits at Paramount and MGM to plough $100 million into this massive wet fart of a film. It’s possibly also another cautionary tale in the mould of John Carter. Fail to find an A-lister on which to float your bloated popcorn picture and you’ll almost certainly fail to find an audience to hoover it up.

Treading much the same ground as the previous versions, Ben-Hur recounts the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a prominent and wealthy Jew living in Jerusalem with his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala, being of Roman rather than Jewish stock, considers himself an outsider and enlists in the Roman army, returning years later as a decorated and successful soldier. Messala has been entrusted with policing Jerusalem, a city brimming with tension stoked up by Zealots, for the entrance of new governor Pontius Pilate. Trouble inevitably starts with Ben-Hur taking the blame for an attempted assassination. With Messala still feeling slighted at a perceived non-integration into his Jewish family, he has Ben-Hur expelled and sold into slavery, prompting a torturous and leaden voyage of personal redemption as Ben-Hur attempts to win his freedom and a chance of revenge against his brother.

Upon entering Ben-Hur you find yourself asking the question: Why? Upon exiting the cinema, you find yourself asking it again. In an age of comic book cinematic universes, why attempt to revive the sword and sandals epic with such a lumpen bore as this? Script-wise it’s a forgettable parade of triumph over adversary and brotherly love turned sour clichés with Huston gurning his way through the picture and Kebbell looking like he regrets his decision to sign on.

Somewhere along the line the decision was made to compound an already baffling list of follies by releasing this thing in 3D. Really, it’s a wonder that anybody is still peddling it. Consequently one doesn’t even have the meagre luxury of falling back on visuals to sustain one’s interest. It’s such a drab and grey affair, shot almost entirely in close-up, that at times you suspect you must have smeared Vaseline over your own eyes before entering the cinema. Which probably would have been a good idea.

action, adventure, history| USA, 2016 | 12A | Paramount Pictures | 7th September 2016 (UK) |Dir.Timur Bekmambetov | Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Morgan Freeman, Ayelet Zurer