The screen’s third incarnation of the Lew Wallace novel may be shorter but the 

international cast is still upstaged by the horseplay.


Ben-Hur II

Horse opera: Jack Huston on a practice run


William Wyler’s Ben-Hur of 1959 won a then-unprecedented eleven Oscars. Timur Bekmambetov's re-visit of Lew Wallace’s 1880 Biblical novel is unlikely to win one, or even a nomination. The production design is impressive and the climactic chariot race is a genuinely thrilling spectacle, although it never feels entirely real. The problem with the new film is that the action sequences are speeded up (by reducing the frame rate), which worked brilliantly in Saving Private Ryan but has now become a cliché. Marco Beltrami's wall-to-wall music is another drawback, while the oral continuity of the English-American-Iranian-Danish-Brazilian cast leaves a lot to be desired. No doubt purists will object to another white actor playing Jesus, even if Rodrigo Santoro’s Brazilian accent does give a new twist to the Son of God.


To be fair, Bekmambetov's film is less plodding than Wyler’s cherished version, although there’s a lot of story to wade through. Jack Hawkins got second-billing in the 1959 film but his role here – as Roman consul Quintus Arrius – is discarded in a brief cameo by James Cosmo. However, one cannot deny the sincerity of Bekmambetov's actors, with committed turns from Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur, Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus, Nazanin Boniadi as Judah's wife and Ayelet Zurer as Mrs Ben-Hur. However, the Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (A Hijacking, A War) fails to suck much blood out of Pontius Pilate. Which leaves Morgan Freeman, who not only narrates the piece, but is wheeled on to inject a bit of gravitas. Only Morgan can get away with saying things like, “Know the world you live in, Judah.”


Inevitably, the film will be compared unfavourably with Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator, about another underling seeking revenge on the Roman empire, but at least it trots in at just over two hours, 89 minutes shorter than the last Ben-Hur. Having said that, it does feel a lot longer.




Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer, Morgan Freeman, Sofia Black D'Elia, Pilou Asbæk, James Cosmo.


Dir Timur Bekmambetov, Pro Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson and Joni Levin, Screenplay Keith Clarke and John Ridley, Ph Oliver Wood, Pro Des Naomi Shohan, Ed Dody Dorn, Richard Francis-Bruce and Bob Murawski, Music Marco Beltrami, Costumes Varvara Avdyushko.


Bazelevs/Lightworkers Media/Sean Daniel Productions-Paramount Pictures.

123 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 7 September 2016. Cert. 12A.