Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: BEN-HUR

 

September 8, 2016

Let's just cut to the chase. BEN-HUR is masterful! A spectacle worthy of Cecil B. DeMille but with a story that is more grounded and layered with softer, nuanced, more human emotional performances that go beyond the visual (and visceral) experience and elevate the film into an eye-opener for the heart. Majestic in scope and message, what director Timur Bekmambetov and company have done is deliver a film for the ages.

Being the classic film devotee that I am, and as my regular readers and listeners, so often resenting remakes or reimaginations as either needless, pointless or poorly told, I am genuinely blown away by what Bekmambetov has done. In all honesty, despite my love for William Wyler's 1959 "Ben-Hur" with Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd as Judah Ben-Hur and Messala, this 2016 version of the classic story is the better of the two; actually, the best of all prior versions, from the 1907 silent short film to Fred Niblo's 1925 "Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ" (with the all important chariot race shot at Culver Studios in Culver City) to Wyler's seminal 1959 version to the 2003 animated version (with Charlton Heston voicing Judah Ben-Hur, the role he played on film) and even the 2010 television mini-series, as while there is the much anticipated spectacle and grandeur, thanks to screenwriters John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke story and character are king here. There is a deeper emotional resonance with the characters and with the story itself, thanks in great part not only to the script, but to the casting.

For those unfamiliar with the story of BEN-HUR, it dates back to the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace, "Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ" and is considered to be one of the most influential Christian books of the 19th century and beyond, becoming the #1 best selling book in the United States by 1990, surpassing "Uncle Tom's Cabin", and to this day has never been out of print. Wallace was a Union general in the Civil War, a lawyer, a governor of the early New Mexico territory and a well known author, writing biographies and historical works. Writing BEN HUR while governor, Wallace called on his own military experiences, allegedly those from the Battle of Shiloh, as well as doing extensive research into the geography and history of the Middle East and the Holy Land at the Library of Congress. The result was the story of revenge and redemption between brothers Judah Ben-Hur and Messala as told through the eyes of Ben-Hur.

What stands out with the Ridley-Clarke script in this 2016 BEN-HUR and sets it apart from the famed 1959 version, is that the duo go back to the original source material of the 1880 novel and its Christian foundation as found in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Bible. BEN-HUR is the epic story of brother against brother - Prince Judah Ben-Hur and his adopted brother and best friend Messala. When we first meet Judah and Messala, they are as loving and fun-filled as any brothers can be. But as time marches on and love and rivalry invade their sibling relationship, Messala leaves the Hur home, returning some years later as a protégé of Pontius Pilate. Falsely accusing Judah of treason, he orders him into slavery and into the bowels of a ship's galley. Stripped of his title and separated from his mother and wife Esther, both of whom Messala has sentenced to death, after years at sea, Judah then returns home seeking revenge, but finds forgiveness and redemption. Incorporating key ideals through the theme of adopted brothers-brotherly love (as opposed to the '59 film with old friends now adversaries), just elevates the entire project. Also notable is the shift of the story timeline, running a well-integrated concurrent timeline of Jesus Christ and his impact on not only Judah Ben-Hur's wife Esther, but on Judah Ben-Hur, as well as expanding the role of Sheik Ilderim which, thanks to Morgan Freeman, serves as a sage teacher and mentor to Judah Ben-Hur. Beyond moving, these structural changes work exceedingly well for a resonant cinematic experience in the 21st century.

By developing the story with Judah and Messala as adopted brothers, the dynamic is created for rich character development, tapping into good natured sibling rivalry and youthful hijinks, with differing religions, and setting the stage for true emotional conflict later in life. Here, we meet the boys at their most youthful and full of vigor. Thanks to their individual personalities, which are very well defined thanks to the performances of Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell, as Judah and Messala, respectively, we can see where paths will diverge and conflict arise. (Far superior to the Wyler film where Messala and Jewish prince Judah are old friends and Messala appears on the scene commanding Roman legions.) While in the novel Judah is a prince and Messala the son of a Roman tax-collector who leaves home, goes to school in Rome and returns an arrogant ass at which point the two are enemies prompting Judah to head to Rome for military training to then fight against Rome, the reality of the relationship in this 2016 version is more resonant for the audience and quite honestly, in story structure on the whole.

While the 1959 script focuses on politics and religion as the breaking point for the two men (and actually has deep political references to the then current state of affairs with Israel), Ridley and Clarke here focus on the individual personalities of each man and their beliefs on humanity as a whole, lending itself further to the themes of forgiveness and redemption as opposed to a stronghold of vengeance. The men's differences then take deeper shape because of the individual interpretations of word definitions by each man, thus laying groundwork for the idea that the entire situation that unfolds could have been avoided just by listening and having an open heart. But once the conflict between the brothers is started, it snowballs and defiant arrogance and deep resentful brotherly one-upsmanship takes hold, turning hearts and minds to stone. And this is where the thematic similarities of Wallace's book really take hold in this script - betrayal, conviction, redemption, revenge, love, compassion and forgiveness - with the running parallel of a Christ, played with humility and sensitivity by Rodrigo Santoro - quietly kicks into high gear as love, compassion and forgiveness take hold and vengeance falls by the wayside. This BEN-HUR focuses on the positivity of forgiveness and redemption as opposed to the negativity of vengeance, something very important to producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett.

Thankfully, the dialogue in 2016 BEN-HUR is not formalized or stilted as was Wyler's film or even the 1925 silent title cards. There is a beautiful casual flow to the dialogue allowing for ease of delivery in performance.

In none of the prior versions of BEN-HUR do we get the sense of brotherly playfulness or fun sibling rivalry between Messala and Judah. (Similarly, "youthful exuberance" of a young prince as Jack Huston delivers here is never something that Charlton Heston could or would ever exude. His Judah Ben-Hur was very serious and felt much older and more mature - despite the historical facts of the life expectancy of people in that time.) As I said to Jack Huston, having now seen his performance as Judah Ben-Hur, if I have to choose between he and Heston, it's Jack Huston for me every time.

As Judah Ben-Hur, Jack Huston brings a youthful exuberance that is then tempered by experience, guidance and ultimately, heart. Huston commands the screen be it as a lively outgoing prince, a gaunt muscled and boned slave in a ship's galley or racing 46mph around a spina in a chariot race. You cannot take your eyes off of him. Similarly, Toby Kebbell is deliciously smug and arrogant as Messala, but again, we see character transformation from a wild-eyed youth to hardened Roman soldier as protégé of Pontius Pilate. The transformation of Judah and Messala thanks to Huston and Kebbell is fully realized. We see the physical and emotional growth of each as each character in his own timeline is broken in order to be uplifted.

And speaking of Pilate, Pilou Asbaek is perfectly cast as Pilate, bringing a sense of aloof yet commanding entitlement that comes through despite his undeniable charm. A real casting surprise is Moises Arias. We've all seen Arias grow up on tv thanks to shows like "Hannah Montana", but here tackling the role of the street zealot, only to die on the cross next to Jesus, he really brings the emotion AND the idea of redemption. You feel it in his performance.

As Jesus Christ, Rodrigo Santoro speaks to the heart with a truth and purity. The first incarnation of the BEN-HUR story to have Christ speaking, Santoro's very essence provides a tacit spirituality that is undefinable, but compelling and emotionally fulfilling. Gripping is the crucifixion sequence. Shot on a very cold day after snow the previous night, Santoro's performance was shot in one extended take with powerful improvisational moments involving Huston's BEN-HUR resulting from the gravitas and intensity of the scene on the whole. This is a scene that will be remembered in cinema history.

Expanding the role of Sheik Ilderim into that of a mentor to Judah does much for the character of Judah and this storyline as does running concurrently the days leading up to the chariot race and Christ's crucifixion. It also allows for subtle development into the nature of the Romans and particularly, Pilate. As Ilderim, Morgan Freeman is at his most wise and most divine.

What Timur Bekmambetov has done from the standpoint of visual design is exemplary. Visuals are dazzling from a perspective of beauty and history. Fully expecting Bekmambetov to got the route of CGI and effects for which he is long known, it's not only a welcome surprise, but very effective tact, to go the route of practical stunts and authenticity on every level. The authenticity of the locations in the historic city of Matera as well as the grandeur of the physical set pieces for the Hur palace, the galley ships and the Circus Tiberius all built on the legendary Cinecitta Studios in Italy are breathtaking. These are what the word "spectacle" into the description of BEN-HUR.

Oliver Wood's cinematography is beauteous - from the interiors of the Hur palace to the inky black depths of a ship's galley to a bustling Jerusalem marketplace to beautifully quiet moments of a celebratory parade on a narrow cobblestoned street with all carrying palm fronds (aka Palm Sunday) welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem. Key is that many of the visuals speak to the passage of time (such as Judah and Esther meeting an unidentified carpenter on the street, only to see this man stop and give water to a now beaten and shackled Judah) as well as honing in with close-ups capturing the facial expressiveness of these actors.

One of the most important aspects of the visual design of Bekmambetov and Woods comes into play with the 3D conversion. As you all well know, 3D viewing often dims or greys the screen, be it due to the conversion process or the theatre projector bulbs not being used at full wattage. Here, the 3D conversion is beautiful in both, look, effect and in creating the endlessness of sky and depth of field. Thanks to the beautiful lensing and unfettered skies, when the camera opens up wide or up into the sky, so pure and bright is the sky or eyeline that the very essence or sense of reaching into the heavens is felt.

And now I know why Timur Bekmambetov has been so excited about his 32 chariot-racing horses, very time we have spoken over the past couple of years. This is glorious, high-octane excitement! Will anyone surpass the 2nd unit work of Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt's with the 1959 BEN-HUR chariot race in terms of its grandeur? Probably not thanks to the panavision 70mm widescreen lensing. But damn if Bekmambetov and 2nd unit director Phil Nielson along with the horse masters and stunt team PLUS Huston and Kebbell don't come close if not in grandeur but in surpassing the classic in epic scope and exhilarating excitement. With 32 horses on the spina for the chariot race and Huston and Kebbell doing their own driving, and the race being shot in toto and not choppy little pieces at double time to get the effect of speed, thanks to today's technology and the lightness and fleetness of cameras, GoPros are placed underneath chariots (in soccer balls for protection) allowing the audience to be immersed in the experience of the 46mph race as we are up close and personal with racing wheels and horses hooves, feeling the movement and thrill of the race itself. Watching THIS chariot race is a breathtaking experience of unbridled enthusiasm and edge of your seat, nail-biting tension.

From a cinematic structure, bookending the film with the chariot race and then kicking back eight years to jovial childhood horse racing between Judah and Messala and then coming full circle to the third act chariot race in full is smartly designed. Even more notable are the end titles that have the credits appearing in their own little chariot forms racing around the Circus Tiberius track.

Sound design is extremely well done, right own to the sound of sand being kicked up by horses and chariots, as well as an unforgettable naval battle as seen and heard through Judah's eyes from the bowels of the ship with the slaves rhythmic rowing. All is well integrated and balanced.

The final beauty of BEN-HUR comes with Marco Beltrami's scoring. Nice cultural tones are infused within the overall score, which itself serves as a lovely undercurrent as opposed to leading the audience by the emotional hand.

Majestic! Masterful! Timur Bekmambetov's BEN-HUR is a film for the ages!

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Written by John Ridley and Keith R. Clarke

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Rodrigo Santoro, Pilou Asbaek

 

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