Directed by: Steve Shill
Cast: Joseph Morgan, Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily VanCamp, Ray Winstone, Alex Kingston, Hugh Bonneville
Running Time: 3 hr 12 mins
Rating: Not Rated
Due Out: April 30, 2013
PLOT: When a tile falls during a Roman parade, Judah Ben-Hur (Morgan) and his family are wrongfully punished. Sent away to be a slave, Ben-Hur eventually returns to his home seeking revenge.
WHO’S IT FOR? Those who enjoyed History Channel’s The Bible or other similar adaptations might find some enjoyment in this Ben Hur miniseries. Anyone who is only interested in seeing what an updated take on the chariot race looks like should save themselves the trouble.
Though its aspirations are far more modest, I went in expecting Ben Hur to be similar to the recent History Channel miniseries, The Bible. While I’m not religious, I slogged through it because I still find a lot of the stories interesting. History Channel’s effort featured a few decent hours — particularly the one focusing on Moses — but overall was too cheap and uninteresting to be labeled a success. Ben Hur rarely looks cheap, something that gives it a leg up. Sadly, outside brief flashes scattered throughout, the majority of this adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel is just as dull.
After first airing in 2010, “The Epic Miniseries Event” is broken into two 96-minute parts on the DVD. Both end up being mediocre with a handful of moments that hint at something better. Part one is elevated a bit by the presence of Ray Winstone as Quintus Arrius. After the fateful incident that leads to Judah Ben-Hur’s imprisonment as an unnamed slave on Arrius’ ship, we get the best sustained moments of the miniseries. Much of that is due to Winstone elevating everything he touches. While at sea we also get some not entirely realistic, yet quite striking nighttime shots. After a boat battle, things threaten to get interesting when Arrius and Ben-Hur start reenacting Life of Pi. This passes quickly, but the relationship back on dry land is engaging and carries part one to a fairly strong ending.
Unfortunately, any momentum built from Ben-Hur’s promise to Quintus Arrius and his revenge-fueled return to Jerusalem is quickly squandered by more dullness at the beginning of part two. When I think of Ben Hur, I immediately jump to the chariot race from the 1959 Charlton Heston version. Everything from the miniseries’ opening chariot race between young Ben-Hur and Messala is building to that. The issue is that the path to it is not compelling. If the relationships between Ben-Hur and Esther (played by the lovely Emily VanCamp) or between he and his mother and sister had been fleshed out better – Alex Kingston as his mother Ruth does her best – perhaps the buildup would work. Instead we have two hours and 40 minutes of weak storytelling in exchange for ten minutes of chariot racing.
Credit where credit is due, the race is actually handled quite well. Everyone knows they can’t touch the iconic Heston version, and this more modest attempt is commendable. It’s plagued by some distracting slow motion (something true of every action sequence), but it’s the most thrilling sequence the miniseries has to offer. The friendship and rivalry between Ben-Hur and Messala is probably handled second best after the father-son relationship between Ben-Hur and Quintus Arrius. Even so, it lacks the depth to make us feel anything other than surface level thrills during the race.
On the seven minute making of, it’s clear everyone thought very highly of what they were doing. Many speak of how this adaptation focuses on the human relationships and tells a universal story. If only. For me, this Ben Hur is a handsomely made production, but one that lacks the storytelling to truly resonate.
MOVIE SCORE: 5/10
The Making of Ben Hur