Ben-Hur: Bekmambetov's picture noticeably drags
Kazakh-Russian director Timur Bekmambetov's muscular remake of the historical epic, based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, has big sandals to fill.
A 1925 silent version starring Ramon Novarro was one of the most expensive films of the era and garnered effusive critical praise.
William Wyler’s 1959 reimagining, shot in lustrous CinemaScope with Charlton Heston as the eponymous slave, commanded another gargantuan budget.
Critics fumbled for superlatives and the film received a record 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director - an achievement equalled when James Cameron captained Titanic and Peter Jackson navigated the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Bekmambetov’s rendition won’t be nominated for an Oscar, let alone win a coveted golden statuette - not even for the slick digital effects in the climatic chariot race.
This Ben-Hur isn’t a sermon of rollicking entertainment to the secular multiplex masses.
Scriptwriters Keith Clarke and John Ridley hark back to the source novel and emphasize the religious elements, expanding the presence of Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro) in the title character’s odyssey of forgiveness.
A silky smooth narration courtesy of Morgan Freeman introduces Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), whose influential Jewish family adopts Roman best friend Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell).
The two men are as fiercely competitive and loyal as blood brothers, but Messala always feels slightly distant from his adoptive mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer).
“I’m just a lucky orphan your family took in,” the Roman ruefully reminds Ben-Hur.
In order to find his place in the world, Messala turns his back on a burgeoning romance with Ben-Hur’s sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia) and enlists in the Roman army.
Three years later, the men are reunited in Roman-occupied Jerusalem where Messala has been entrusted with guaranteeing the safe passage of governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek).
Unfortunately, a zealot harboured by Ben-Hur makes an attempt on Pilate’s life and the governor demands swift action.
“Rome is begging for blood. I have to give them some,” growls Messala, who condemns Ben-Hur to hard labour as a galley slave under the yoke of captain Quintus Arias (James Cosmo).
A cruel twist of fate delivers Ben-Hur into the clutches of Nubian Sheik Ilderim (Freeman), who helps the embittered Jew to exact revenge against his adoptive Roman brother in a high-profile chariot race.
Ben-Hur might be the shortest version of the story committed to celluloid thus far - Wyler’s masterpiece is 50 minutes longer - but Bekmambetov’s picture noticeably drags.
Huston and Kebbell are solid though neither possesses the charisma of an A-list leading man like Heston, who commanded attention during bombastic action sequences.
Repeatedly, characters question their resolve and are told to hold firm to their course.
Faith conquers all, but audiences who keep the faith with Bekmambetov’s film won’t be rewarded in this lifetime.
Or the next.