Ben-Hur's latest adaptation still works

The horse chariot race is still the highlight of this latest adaptation of Ben-Hur.
The horse chariot race is still the highlight of this latest adaptation of Ben-Hur.PHOTO: UIP

REVIEW / PERIOD DRAMA

BEN-HUR (PG 13)
125 minutes/Now showing/ 3 stars

The story: In the latest adaptation of the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a wealthy Jewish prince with a Roman adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell). Their competing loyalties eventually tear them apart as Messala rises through the ranks to become an officer in the Roman army, which is persecuting the Jews. When Judah is blamed for an assassination attempt on Pontius Pilate, he is sentenced to be a galley slave and his family is taken away on Messala's orders. Years later, the brothers square off against each other in a chariot race.

A single scene defines the 1959 period action epic Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston - a heart-stopping chariot race in which the stakes are life and death itself as losers face the threat of getting crushed under the thundering hooves of the horses.

The chariot race remains pivotal to this latest adaptation and director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, 2012) does away with the flashy sharpened spikes of the souped-up vehicle seen in the 1959 hit.

He favours a grittier approach and still musters plenty of excitement. To get to this point, brother is pitted against brother and familial bonds against the mighty Roman empire.

While the family drama feels a little stilted, Bekmambetov does a good job contrasting the sumptuousness of life in Jerusalem - the feasting, the frescoed walls and the colourful outfits - with the dank and drab hell that is the confines of a galley slave.

Striking an odd note is Morgan Freeman as an African sheik who saves Judah and later trains him to be a charioteer. Playing a wise old man is par for the course for the veteran actor, but the showstopping braided hair seems to belong in another movie, if not another era altogether.

The ending is somewhat rushed and something of a stretch as it involves several miracles.

But then again, this is one of the rare occasions when a deus ex machina is justified since Jesus Christ (a beatific Rodrigo Santoro) shows up as a supporting character.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Ben-Hur's latest adaptation still works'. Print Edition | Subscribe