Ben-Hur—It’s been a while, if ever, since I can recall thinking that a big-studio feature film was too short. But that, among other things, is what makes this newest version of Lew Wallace’s toga tale a dud.
As before, Jewish rich kid Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) comes to grief, separation from his family and enslavement as a galley oarsman via his Roman pal Messala (Toby Kebbell). Judah struggles his way back to freedom and solvency, eventually becoming a chariot-driver for a rich nomad (Morgan Freeman), all the while dreaming of revenge. All this takes place concurrently with the life of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro), with whom Judah significantly crosses paths now and then.
Most of us are probably most familiar with this yarn through William Wyler’s long and lavish 1959 movie version. As risibly corny as Charlton Heston’s grimacing performance in the title role can now seem, that film’s epic length, though admittedly exhausting, does result in dramatic payoffs. The same goes for Wallace’s pedantic, didactic, description-heavy yet somehow highly agreeable 1880 novel.
The new film rushes through the story in around two hours. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the talented Kazakh behind the bizarre, intriguing Night Shift and Day Shift, this Ben-Hur is adequately-acted, and it climaxes with a chariot race that’s brutal and pretty exciting (though tough on horse lovers). But it’s perfunctory—it hustles through episodes like Judah’s visit to his loved ones in a leper colony so fast that it’s almost funny.
Similarly, the scenes toward the end depicting Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa and The Crucifixion are like a Passion Play on speed. Truly and without irony, nothing in this Ben-Hur was as spiritually moving to me as George Clooney’s speech earlier this year about universal brotherhood at the foot of The Cross in the movie-within-the-movie in the Coen Brothers spoof Hail, Caesar!
The emotional impact of the new Ben-Hur, by contrast, is nearly nil. The movie can watched painlessly enough, but that’s the problem—Ben-Hur without pain is like Singin’ in the Rain without dancing.