Ben-Hur (Australia – M/US – PG-13/UK – 12A)

In a word: (Skating across the) Surface

Ben Hur

Jack Huston plays Judah Ben-Hur in the latest film version of Ben-Hur. PICTURE: Philippe Antonello © 2016 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

A remake of the Cecil B DeMille epic of the 1959 (itself one of two films based on an 1880s novel), Ben-Hur is the latest in a string of swords-and-sandals sagas which have come out of Hollywood in recent years.

The story, set just before and around the time of the death of Jesus Christ, centres on two brothers, a Jewish princling Judah Ben-Hur (played bv Jack Huston) and his adopted Roman brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell).

Inseparable as children with a shared passion for racing horses, as adults they take separate paths as Messala seeks to find his own way in the world as a Roman soldier while Ben-Hur continues with his somewhat indulgent life as a rich man in Jerusalem.

Yet, while Ben-Hur seeks to protect his household from the social turmoil taking place around them as the Romans brutally suppress the Jewish Zealots looking to bring freedom to their land, the struggle comes into his own house when he shelters a wounded Zealot who then, in what we can say is a deviation from the standard storyline without going into too much detail, ends up bringing the wrath of Rome – and a hardened Messala, returned to Jerusalem as part of its Roman garrison – down upon them.

Ben-Hur ends up spending five years on a slave galley before, aided by a wise mentor, an African nomad named Ilderim (played by Morgan Freeman in the same sort of role he’s played ever since the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves way back in 1991), he returns to Jerusalem with revenge in his heart. There, the final confrontation between the two brothers takes place as they race chariots around the city’s newly built 'circus' or racing track.

The storyline propels forward at a rapid pace, a bit like the racing chariots - so much so, in fact, that it comes at a bit of a cost to character development with the result that they become a little cartoonish – Messala’s horrific repudiation of his family is completed, apparently without any great moments of angst, while even as a slave on the galley, we’re given little insight into what’s going on inside the mind of Ben-Hur. Ultimately there’s a lack of depth to the story being told here.

The story of Jesus Christ, of course, provides a backdrop to the main narrative (Rodrigo Santoro plays Christ) but the links aren’t strong and while Ben-Hur does have a change of heart by the film’s end, what role Christ played in that (and other events which I won’t go into here) isn’t really explained.

Pontius Pilate is there too – he plays a greater role than might usually be expected for those with some knowledge of the story – but the Pilate portrayed here (Pilou Asbæk) is no harried bureaucrat. Instead, he's a cold, calculating and brutal man who clearly fancies himself some sort of mini-emperor.

The computer-generated effects are terrific and the recreation of the first century world generally well done (albeit with a few odd moments including the apparent height of Jerusalem's buildings). Be aware if you have a particular fondness for horses (or even if not), there’s a few racing scenes – including one close to the start – you may find tough viewing.

If you’re looking for an action film dressed in ancient history and with a dab of religion thrown in, you’ll enjoy. But don’t expect much more.