Review: 'Ben Hur' is no biblical disaster, but merits a place in blockbuster purgatory

Regarded as the biggest failure of the summer, 'Ben Hur' is a mess of good intentions and poor decisions

Ben Hur,

Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston race it out in 'Ben Hur' [Paramount]

When a movie arrives with as much bad press as Ben Hur – already regarded as the floppiest flop in a summer of duds – the press screeners are a curious affair. In truth, most critics and reviewers enter the screen with a sense of foreboding dread, already sharpening their pens to scribble down something even newer and even crueller than the hundreds of reviews already coming across the Atlantic advising that this is a failure of biblical proportions. “Two and a half hours,” someone bemoans before the lights are dimmed, an observation matched with ripples of misery across the spread-out group, adding on an extra half hour that won’t materialise. Did Ben Hur even stand a chance?

The 2016 version of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel comes with a lot of baggage. At 620 pages, the book, subtitled with A Tale of the Christ, has a long history of screen adaptation, with the 1959 considered the classic of the bunch. Later revealed by an uncredited Gore Vidal as a sweeping epic of homosexual subtext, that version established Charlton Heston as a star and won so many Oscars that it would take almost four decades for James “I’m the king of the world” Cameron to match its haul. It also runs for almost four hours, which likely would have split the film critics waiting to see it more than Heston would divide the Red Sea as Moses in The Ten Commandments.

So that this new version of Ben Hur manages to fit its entire story into two hours is rather impressive. That it still also manages sequences so long and plodding and dull, going around in circles – before the chariots even start racing – can only be chalked down to sacred mystery.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, best known for his Russian hit Night Watch and the assassins-whose-kills-are-decided-by-linen-weaving action flick Wanted, it’s impossible to know who to root for in Ben Hur. As the eponymous hero, Jack Huston offers up a Judah Ben-Hur so frustrating that when he falls off his horse in the opening scene, it’s hard not to immediately think they’re playing that for a laugh.

The real issue is that the villain of the piece, Judah’s adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell, who bookended blockbuster season with this and the even worse Warcraft), somehow comes across as the rational one and likeable one. Spurned by his adoptive mother, in love with his sister, eager to find a footing in life without the family wealth and seeking some sort of meaning by answering Cesar’s call to spread the empire through Germania, his arc hits all the right notes for modern audiences. When he returns, now a decorated officer who fights with brawn and brain under Pontius Pilate (played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk, bringing the kind of gruff guile he mustered as host of the Eurovision in 2014), the brothers are reunited. Asking Judah to give him the names of those fighting the occupation, all hell breaks loose when a fugitive Judah is sheltering in his home tries to kill Pilate.

Morgan Freeman as horse master Sheik Ilderim [Paramount]

And so begins the film, a good 40 minutes in, with Judah torn from his home, his mother and sister off to be crucified, his wife fleeing for safety, his brother’s hands tied by Roman law. Chained up with other slaves on Roman galleys, Judah is broken down into a whispering husk of sinew and sweat by a proto-form of spinning, rowing in time to the beat of a drum in the dark. Escape comes via the most thrilling action set piece in the film, and with it redemption in the form of Sheik Ilderim, the Don King of biblical charioteers. “You cannot fight them in the streets, but there is another way,” the Sheik advises, “The Circus.”

The chariot race will determine the future of these brothers, a shoddily edited 10-minute sequence playing out like a health-and-safety warning video to be shown to every new employee at the Circus Maximus before guides on how to throw Christians to the lions without throwing out your back.

And then there’s Jesus, popping up like a swarthy Instagram star offering platitudes like an infuriating Instagram account, reminding you that this is, in essence, a Hallmark religious movie with better costumes set to get replayed on TV every Easter. Maybe it’s when you’re in a stupor digesting dinner and eyeing up a second chocolate egg that this will all come together into something passable.

Ben Hur, 12A, 123 minutes, Released: September 7th

Verdict: ★★☆☆☆ Not quite the tedious ordeal the critical consensus presented, but Ben Hur struggles to find a safe balance between its hammiest and dullest parts.

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