Film Review

Film Review: Ben-Hur

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Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Runtime: 150 minutes

If you can get past the Maori-looking actor with an English accent playing a Roman character, Morgan Freeman in a role other than God (only because it was already taken) and Russell Crowe’s doppelgänger parading the streets of Jerusalem in faux fur coats, then look no further – Ben-Hur is the movie for you!

Set in Israel, Ben-Hur follows the story of a wealthy Jew, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), and his adopted Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Messala spends three years in the Roman army, and on his return condemns his brother to five years of slavery as a punishment for treason. Judah is left the lone survivor of his vessel in the wake of a ruinous encounter with Greek rebels, after which he is rescued by a wealthy African chariot racer, Sheik Ilderim (Freeman). Ilderim enables Judah to take his revenge through a chariot race with Messala.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, Ben-Hur is a remake of the 1959 blockbuster of the same name. Set during the time of Christ, the film contains strong themes of love, revenge, forgiveness and family. The film is classified as a historical drama, showing similarities to Gladiator (2000) and Spartacus (1960), but with a deeper emphasis on the characters’ morals. Ben-Hur can be quite difficult to keep up with and rather disorienting for more dim-witted viewers such as myself.

The storyline lacks clarity, and because of this, it is hard to decipher who we should love and who we should loathe. However, the film compensates for this with an 8-minute chariot scene tense enough to cause heart palpitations and a soundtrack which will keep you humming long after you’ve left the cinema. Kebbell and Huston complement each other so flawlessly that it is open to question who the leading actor of this film really is. Messala’s character suits Kebbell’s rugged type as portrayed in Prince of Persia (2010) and Wrath of the Titans (2012). However, Huston adds Judah’s character to a more diverse history of roles, including Pete Musane in American Hustle (2013) and Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire (2010). On screen, they effectively bring to life two brothers so broken by each other’s betrayal that the audience is permitted to feel only slightly disgusted by their consuming passion to kill each other.

The story is fast paced but cyclical, often leaving the viewer feeling a sense of déjà vu: one brother is away, he returns home, other brother is away, he returns home… These sections are only broken up by frequent and almost random interruptions by the Messiah and his teachings of forgiveness. The ending itself is unpredictable, offering a message of redemption both spiritually and in the characters’ relationships.

While this re-adaption has been slammed by some reviewers in comparison to the original, I think we can take a lesson of forgiveness from the characters and overlook its faults. This imperfect story has the power to bring you (or maybe just me) to tears, laugh incessantly and remember the importance of family, integrity and forgiveness when all else is lost.

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