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Ben Hur (TV) - Review

Joseph Morgan as Judah Ben-Hur

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

CONSIDERING the enduring popularity of William Wyler’s 1959 epic – never mind its annual resurrection at Christmas or Easter – the re-imagining of Ben-Hur for the small screen was a huge gamble but one that has ultimately paid off.

Based on Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben Hur is set in first century Palestine where the love between two boyhood friends – Judah Ben-Hur, a young Jew and the Roman Octavius Messala – turns to hate when Judah and his family are betrayed in the worst possible way by the latter’s driving ambition.

Although the story is interwoven with threads of a far greater story – that of a young carpenter’s apprentice whose life ends so cruelly on a hill at Calvary – this new version veers far more towards the relationship between the principal protagonists, even going so far back as their adolescence when they innocently race haycarts, a foretaste of what’s to come years later. But in so doing, it makes it impossible not to empathise fully with Judah’s hurt and, to a lesser degree, Messala’s motives.

Stepping into the illustrious shoes of Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd are Joseph Morgan (The Vampire Diaries) and Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys) and both acquit themselves admirably. In fact, both smoulder beneath a cloak of almost tangible animosity – Judah smarting from a wrongful conviction and a desire to avenge its perpetrator, Messala from thwarted ambition and self-belief.

There’s also good support from Marc Warren as the ill-natured zealot David; Ben Cross as the Emperor Tiberius; Alex Kingston as Judah’s mother Miriam; Hugh Bonneville as Pontius Pilate; Art Malik as Sheik Ilderim and Ray Winstone as Judah’s saviour Quintus Arrius.

But am I the only one to quibble over Winstone’s accent? Whether he’s portraying a Roman Commander, King Henry VIII of England or the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, it’s always exactly the same!

It’s difficult not to make comparisons with the 1959 film, particularly with regards to the chariot race. However, though nowhere near as grand in scale, it is convincing nonetheless.

On the other hand, the story’s ending is another matter for the miracle of Miriam and Tirzah’s deliverance from leprosy made far more sense as it was depicted in Wyler’s version.

Morocco, where filming took place, doubles adequately for Palestine though not quite so well for Capri as anyone who has walked in the footsteps of Tiberius at Villa Jovis will know – a small point that in all honesty detracts little from the scenes on the island.

All in all, this is a very fine production; one that will, I think, stand the test of time. It’s certainly one that I would be more than happy to watch again.