Every family has its own little traditions; that's part of what it means to be a family, I suppose. One of ours was that, every Christmas, someone would pore over the TV guide until we had located what time they were showing the 1959 version of Ben-Hur (they invariably were). Then, having made a careful note of exactly when it was on, we equally carefully didn't switch on until a couple of hours later, because we were only really interested in the bit with the chariot race. I strongly get the impression that there was a similar tradition in the house of the makers of the new version of Ben-Hur, because in some ways this whole film feels like the work of people who are only really interested in the bit with the chariots.
Yeah, they've actually gone and done a remake of Ben-Hur, bemusing though the decision is. Has the well of inspiration really run so dry? Is nothing safe from the curse of the pointless reimagining? What next, a remake of Jaws? A remake of West Side Story? A remake of Back to the Future? A remake of The Magnificent Seven? (Oh, hang on a minute.) Showing a rather sweet naivety, everyone involved insists this is a new adaptation of the Lew Wallace novel and has nothing to do with the other film versions (there have been several) whatsoever, in the apparent belief this means their movie will not be compared to death with the 1959 film, one of the most famous and successful films of all time. Good luck with that, guys.
The plot is, obviously, rather familiar: Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a privileged Jewish prince in the first century AD, no particular friend to the occupying Romans, but not intent on driving them out either: he just wants a quiet life. Things are complicated by the fact his adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) is an ambitious Roman officer, and the time eventually comes when Ben-Hur must make a choice between loyalty to his brother and his people. He opts for the latter, and as a result finds himself framed for an attack on the Roman governor. His mother and sister are imprisoned and he is packed off to become a galley slave.
Still, you can't keep a good Hur down, and one nightmarish sea battle later he is loose and working as a vet for charioteering impressario Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), all the while pondering how to exact vengeance against Messala, despite his wife's pleas for him to move on (Mrs Ben-Hur is played by Nazanin Boniadi). Then Ilderim comes up with an idea for a way for Ben-Hur to safely take on Messala – and wouldn't you know, it involves a chariot race...
I'm sure that many people outside my family also think that the chariot race sequence is basically the sine qua non of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – well, whether it is or not, you could argue that in some ways it definitely is of this new film. The chariot race is in the poster, the film opens with a taster of the climactic race sequence, which is heavily foreshadowed throughout the first two acts of the film, and the closing credits are animated so the names of cast and crew gallop around the circus amidst clouds of dust. The problem is that if you're going to pitch your movie so much on the strength of one set-piece sequence, it's really got to be something special – and while the race here is good, it's not great, not least because it's so clearly been achieved with CGI where the 1959 race was staged 'for real'.
Then again, doing stuff with CGI is the speciality of director Timur Bekmambetov, who is in charge on this occasion. Bekmambetov is the guy who gave the world Wanted, a demented thriller about superpowered assassins acting at the behest of precognitive knitting, along with Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter, a film which is every bit as strange as it sounds. Unfortunately something about this project seems to have cowed Bekmambetov a bit, for his usual irrepressible insanity is nowhere to be seen and, apart from during the sea battle and the chariot race, his style is rather anonymous and pedestrian.
But the overall impression one takes away from the new Ben-Hur is of a small film with aspirations to be a big one. Morgan Freeman is the only cast member most people will have heard of, and he goes all-out to provide some gravitas. Jack Huston is clearly trying his socks off too but there is no avoiding the fact that he is in the shadow of a colossus with no chance of escape. Whatever you think of Charlton Heston's politics, he was one of the most charismatic film stars of all time, and he had more screen presence in one of his earlobes than Huston has in his entire body.
Nobody else makes much of an impression either, except, perhaps, Toby Kebbell. Kebbell has made something of a career out of doing bad guy roles where his face is never seen – he was an evil chimp in the last Planet of the Apes film and Dr Doom in the calamitous version of Fantastic Four last year – and actually appearing on screen must have been a nice change for him. Good though he is, his slight resemblance to a Vernon Kay who's worried that Tess has been checking his SMS history again was rather distracting for me.
Messala is a rather more sympathetic and less malevolent character in this version of the film, which has had various nips and tucks performed on the plot, removing some elements entirely and building others up. This isn't truly a grandiose epic of the old school, but something clearly aspiring to be grounded and emotionally real, with a predictably hard modern edge.
And perhaps something more too... In many ways the new Ben-Hur reminded me of Risen, a fairly obscure film I saw earlier this year which purported to be another sword-and-sandal drama, but actually turned out to be some sort of evangelical tract. There's money in the Christian movie-going audience, provided you can get them on side. Hence we have a message about the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than vengeance, a conclusion I can only describe as sappy, and – perhaps most significantly – a rather bigger role for Jesus in the story. Jesus is played by Rodrigo Santoro, an interesting choice given he is probably best known for playing the huge-and-jingly-and-rather-suspect god-king-villain in the 300 movies. Still, he does a perfectly fine job, and if we can have a Maori Jesus, why not a Brazilian one?
Unfortunately, it's quite hard to get people to accept your film is about a Christian message of redemption and forgiveness when it's being marketed almost entirely on the strength of one balls-to-the-wall CGI action sequence, and this may explain why this new version of Ben-Hur just hasn't been doing the business at the box office. I'm not really surprised, because this is one of those films where virtually everyone's first reaction to learning it exists is 'Really?!? What's the point?'
This film isn't a disaster and it does have things of merit in it – but its general aura of redundancy, and the fact it clearly can't decide whether it's aimed at mainstream action movie fans or the Christian audience, result in something that's a fairly lacklustre and colourless experience. Or, to put it another way: liked Ben, not so keen on Hur.