It speaks volumes that the latest film version of Ben-Hur more resembles the movie-within-a-movie in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! than the famed 1959 Oscar-winning adaptation directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston. After all, Wyler won three Academy Awards over his illustrious career. Timur Bekmambetov, the director of this big-screen iteration, most recently made Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are adoptive brothers—the first of several departures from Gore Vidal’s controversial 1959 script—who split over Messala’s desire for Roman glory. When Messala returns to Jerusalem as a Roman officer under the charge of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), Messala elicits Judah’s help in quelling local unrest. Instead, a zealot housed by Judah fires an arrow aimed for Pilate from atop the Ben-Hur home. A humiliated Messala banishes Judah into slavery and orders the rest of his family to be put to death.
The only improved part of this Ben-Hur takes place aboard the galley where Judah is conscripted as an oarsman. We see the outside world only in what Judah can glimpse through the ship’s portals and hull cracks. During a maritime battle, a war drummer keeps up his metronomic cadence even after his arm is afire. After Judah's ship is destroyed, he washes ashore and is taken in by Sheik Ilderim (a dreadlocked Morgan Freeman), an African horse trainer. In Wyler’s film, Ilderim was a minor comic character; here, nurses Judah back to health, shelters him, and trains him to become a charioteer.
The rest plays out as expected, including a heavily digitized and tightly shot remake of the acclaimed ten-minute chariot race and Judah’s eventual encounter with Jesus on his trek to Golgotha—kudos for giving the man from Nazareth a face and voice (Rodrigo Santoro) throughout the film. But the changes to the script finally disintegrate in a copout regarding Messala’s fate, punctuated by a pop song as the two brothers freeze-frame and dissolve into the closing credits.
The new Ben-Hur is cut from the same cloth as the biblically themed TV projects by executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. There’s nothing awful about it, but also nothing particularly compelling. That’s chiefly due to Bekmambetov’s pedestrian camerawork, which is rife with medium close-ups, odd framing, and erratic editing. To its credit, this Ben-Hur appreciates the story’s inherent lessons of forgiveness over revenge more acutely than its predecessors did. It just doesn’t understand how to present that message.