Review: Ben Hur (2010)

(Note: this capsule review is part of my farewell to the Netflix DVD service. #GetThroughMyQueue)

Sometimes you just have a hankering for a Biblical version of The Count of Monte Cristo, so after watching the iconic ’59 version for the umpteenth time and not wanting to rewatch either the 1907 or 1925 versions, I thought, “Hey, there’s a 2010s version of the tale, right?”

If you’re thinking of the 2016 big budget remake with Morgan Freeman in the “hey, we can afford Morgan Freeman!” role, you’re not alone. I had to double-check. Somehow, there was an international mini-series production in there (amid at least two animated versions that will have to wait for another time). With British and Canadian actors I recognized, a script by Alan Sharp (Night Moves, Rob Roy), and directed by Steve Shill (Dexter, Deadwood, various Arrowverse shows), I knew I wanted to check this mini-series version out.

This was another win for a comprehensive DVD service as, I suppose my data is indecently anecdotal, but I swear I don’t find mini-series on the streaming services so much (unless it’s a new “limited series” made for that service in question).

Anyway, the cast do acquit themselves decently. It’s fun to see the late Ben Cross even if he is a bit too nutty as Emperor Tiberius and Ray Winstone makes his Arrius more world-weary soldier than Jack Hawkin’s dutiful Patrician. And in case you really wanted to see Hugh Bonneville, aka Mister Brown from Paddington as Pontious Pilate, you’re in luck!

Perhaps with the mini-series format giving more time to the story, there’s the attempt to add some politics and intrigue amidst the revenge tale, from the Jewish discontent at Roman rule to the Romans maneuvering for position. One of my favorite aspects of the 1970s Jesus of Nazareth mini-series was how much they imbued the motivations of time and place with the Biblical tale, for example.

By far though, the indie filmmaker in me appreciated the attempts to make some of the showpiece sequences immortalized by the ’59 verison still satisfying for this much diminished budget. The naval battle is re-cast as a lopsided ambush of sorts (thereby requiring less in visual effects spectacle), where Winstone’s Arrius proves his strategic prowess. The famous chariot race is re-imagined as something of an off-road affair with a makeshift course constructed around Jerusalem versus a grand purpose-built stadium. This allows for not only more variety visually, but peril that is unexpected, yet plausible.

Still, despite all the attempts at innovations, the end result errs on the side of respectable without being rousing. And either Count of Monte Cristo or Ben-Hur needs some verve. You can argue that a modern retelling of Ben-Hur shouldn’t be as melodramatic as the ’59 version (and it would be hard to match the melodrama of Dimitri Tiomkin score alone), but a “Tale of the Christ” has to have some, well, passion. It goes with the territory.

This get two and a half out of five stars. Honestly, it’s more for completionists. And completionists with patience at that.

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