Remaking a movie can be a tricky endeavor. Remaking an Academy Award winning movie can be an even trickier endeavor. Remaking a movie that won 11 of those Academy Awards and is listed as #197 on IMDB’s best movie list seems like a nearly impossible task. This movie had a steep mountain to climb before I stepped into the theater and needless to say I did not have very high expectations for it.
This version does not deviate too much from the story we all know. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince who is very close with his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). As they grow older, Messala is longing to make a name for himself and joins the Roman army. Upon Messala’s return to Jerusalem, he betrays Judah and falsely accuses him of treason against Pontius Pilate. Judah is sent away to slave in the bowels of a ship as a rower for many years. He lets himself become consumed by revenge and anger, and eventually returns to challenge Messala at chariot racing in the arena. Most of that information is known without seeing those movies but if anyone has not seen Ben-Hur from 1959 or this version of Ben-Hur I won’t give away too much else related to the story.
The actors in this version are all respectable in their individual roles but lets be honest, no one is taking home an Oscar. Judah, played by Jack Huston, is leading the way with a strong performance. He shows a wide range of emotion throughout the film and is easily the standout in the film. Toby Kebbell is no slouch in his interpretation of Messala, but I think he is outdone by Huston. The lead actresses all turn in quality roles as well. Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), Naomi Ben-Hur (Ayelet Zurer), and Tirzah Ben-Hur (Sofia Black-D’Elia) all delivered acceptable performances for secondary characters. I can’t recall seeing them in many other roles but they definitely impressed with what they were given to work with. The most well known actor, Morgan Freeman, turns in a pretty standard role as Ilderim, who mentors Judah in the art of chariot racing. Now even though I did call his role standard, that doesn’t mean he was bad. It just means he does the traditional quality job we expect from Morgan Freeman without pushing the envelope too much. Another aspect that was mostly enjoyable about this movie were the special effects and the set design. Almost the entire movie looked gorgeous and the action sequences appeared real enough to cause Mrs. Apologist to squirm on a few occasions.
There is not an abundance of negatives about this film, but the ones it has do manage to hurt the overall rating quite a bit. There are several scenes of what should have been very cool action/battle scenes that just seem wasted with incredibly overused “shaky cam”. The camera moves around so wildly, jumps between extreme zoom ins, and odd angles so many times as the action continues that we begin to lose interest. As good as the actors and actresses mentioned earlier were, there were some very forgettable characters turned in as well. Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) was a very subdued role for someone that I imagined as much more lively. There were also some minor characters that were badly outperformed and seemed out of place.
Overall I was surprised with the quality in this retelling of Ben-Hur. I headed into the viewing with very low expectations and this movie proved to be better than I would have guessed. A serviceable story, a few actors, and some entertaining action pieces led to another happy trip to the theater. But for me the drawbacks of the “shaky cam” along with some bland characters dropped this movie down to 5 Apologies, which is a higher rating than I was thinking when the previews were airing.