Any big-screen adaptation of the 19th century Lew Wallace novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” must exist in the long shadow cast by William Wyler’s 1959 epic, with its iconic chariot race, sensational Charlton Heston performance and 11 Oscar wins.
It’s fair to wonder why anyone would compete with the memory of such a landmark. Judah Ben-Hur’s story of revenge and forgiveness, inspired by his encounters with Jesus of Nazareth, depends on grandiose spectacle to resonate. With all of cinema’s modern tools, there’s still no topping what Wyler and company achieved.
Despite that massive obstacle, it would be unfair to dismiss this new “Ben-Hur” out of hand. The picture, directed by Timur Bekmambetov from a script by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, has its pleasures.
There’s an intensely claustrophobic feel to the galley slave sequence, where the title character (Jack Huston), a Jewish prince living in Jerusalem during the lifetime of Jesus, is condemned after his adoptive brother Messala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman centurion, accuses him of treason. The chariot scene, captured with practical effects, unfurls with an appropriate degree of frenetic drama. It’s missing the rawness that set Wyler’s vision apart from similar counterparts, but it stands up when compared with many other contemporary summer movie set pieces.
Bekmambetov, whose past includes movies like “Wanted” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” has never shied away from staging complicated action scenes.
The whole point of “Ben-Hur,” though, is that the A plot doesn’t matter. It’s not really a story about a slave taking out his vengeance on the Roman Empire, a la “Gladiator.” It is, instead, about how the better angels of our nature, in this case embodied by the example of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), prevail over our base desires. It’s a story of faith and forgiveness shrouded in conventions.
To pull that off in an affecting way requires more than the dramatic ploy of Jesus popping up to offer teachings about peace and co-existence. It demands characters with substantial depth and performances that inspire the audience’s investment, so that their eventual acquiescence to his message resonates emotionally. In that area, in finding that higher ground the material requires, the movie comes up woefully short.