NEW TAKE ON A CLAS­SIC

Film gives Je­sus more prom­i­nent role

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - GO SEE MOVIE REVIEWS, CAPSULES - By Sandy Co­hen As­so­ci­ated Press

Re­mak­ing a film that won 11 Academy Awards in­vites in­evitable com­par­i­son, but the lat­est adap­ta­tion of “Ben-hur” dis­tin­guishes it­self from William Wyler’s 1959 epic by re­tool­ing key char­ac­ter and story el­e­ments. It’s still a big bi­b­li­cal-era tale of power, loy­alty and vengeance, only re­fo­cused through rose­c­ol­ored lenses with an eye to­ward ap­peal­ing to the lu­cra­tive faith­based au­di­ence.

Pro­duced by the power cou­ple be­hind “The Bi­ble” minis­eries, Mark Bur­nett and Roma Downey, this “Ben-hur” is like an ab­bre­vi­ated, more Christ-cen­tered take on Wyler’s film.

It boasts sim­i­lar sweep­ing desert land­scapes, well-dressed Ro­man armies and heart-pound­ing eques­trian ac­tion. Some shots pay clear homage to the Os­car­win­ning clas­sic.

The vi­o­lence here is far more graphic, thanks to modern spe­cial ef­fects (and sen­si­bil­i­ties). This film is also an hour and 40 min­utes shorter than Wyler’s epic (thank good­ness).

But where Wyler’s ver­sion is ul­ti­mately about fam­ily and un­re­quited ro­mance, di­rec­tor Timur Bek­mam­be­tov is more in­ter­ested in re­demp­tion and the words of Je­sus Christ.

Je­sus was silent and his face unseen in Wyler’s film. Played hand­somely by Ro­drigo San­toro, Je­sus has a lot to say here.

Screen­writ­ers Keith Clarke and Os­car win­ner John Ri­d­ley (“12 Years a Slave”) start with the premise and char­ac­ters from the orig­i­nal 1880 novel “Ben-hur: A Tale of the Christ.”

Ju­dah Ben-hur (Jack Hus­ton) and Mes­sala (Toby Kebbell) are like broth­ers un­til Mes­sala be­comes a Ro­man of­fi­cer who falsely ac­cuses Ju­dah of be­trayal. Mes­sala con­demns Ju­dah to slav­ery and jails his in­no­cent mother and sis­ter.

Af­ter years of cap­tiv­ity and an un­likely es­cape, Ju­dah be­friends a horse­man who in­sists he ex­act vengeance against Mes­sala dur­ing the cel­e­brated Ro­man char­iot

race.

The ac­tion of that horse race is just as thrilling and exquisitely chore­ographed as any present­day movie car chase.

It’s as in­tense as Wyler’s, though more vis­ceral. Ad­vances in film­mak­ing and an­i­mal train­ing mean the falls are more dra­matic and the in­juries more grue­some and vivid.

The sprawl­ing sets of Ro­man am­phithe­aters and hill­side vil­lages are as sump­tu­ous here as in Wyler’s film, but some­how less mag­nif­i­cent. In the age of the “Hunger Games” and ev­er­p­re­sent CGI, mas­sive scale just doesn’t have the im­pact it once did.

Be­yond that ba­sic frame­work, the writ­ers have taken many cre­ative lib­er­ties with the source ma­te­rial. There’s no yearn­ing ro­mance be­tween Ju­dah and Es­ther (Nazanin Bo­niadi) as in the orig­i­nal story — or even be­tween Ju­dah and Mes­sala, as in the 1959 film. Ju­dah and Es­ther are mar­ried early in the first act of this “Ben-hur,” and there’s none of the ho­mo­erotic hint­ing that Charl­ton He­ston’s Ju­dah and Steven Boyd’s Mes­sala shared in Wyler’s film. Here, the men’s broth­erly bond trumps ro­mance.

The role of Sheik Ilderim, which won Hugh Grif­fith a sup­port­ing ac­tor Os­car, was ex­panded here for Mor­gan Free­man. Un­for­tu­nately, the char­ac­ter’s hu­mor was re­moved in the process.

A wel­come ad­di­tion to any cast, Free­man is out of place in this flatly drawn part, and not just be­cause he’s the only one who doesn’t use a Bri­tish ac­cent. Why do char­ac­ters in bi­b­li­cal dra­mas speak with Bri­tish ac­cents, any­way?

Speak­ing of cre­ative lib­er­ties, Mes­sala fol­lows an un­ex­pected tra­jec­tory here that ex­ists nei­ther in the novel nor in Wyler adap­ta­tion. To say more would be a spoiler. Mor­gan Free­man (left) plays Sheik Ilderim, who owns the team of horses that Ju­dah Ben­Hur drives in the char­iot race.

PHO­TOS BY PHILIPPE ANTONELLO/PARA­MOUNT PIC­TURES

Jack Hus­ton plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter in the re­make of the 1959 film “Ben-hur,” win­ner of 11 Academy Awards. The new ver­sion is more Christ-cen­tered.

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