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Clarke and Ridley manage to find some contemporary political resonance in the milieu of Roman-occupied Judea, drawing some clear parallels between the Roman army’s control of the Jews and the over-policing of black Americans, including a robust debate over the efficacy and righteousness of violence as a response to oppression (a cry of “Jewish lives matter! But given the dictates of the film’s narrative, they have little room to explore these issues beyond merely hinting at them.Throughout, , suggesting that this film’s chariot race could have offered some over-the-top camp delirium.Dick (Hugh Laurie), perpetually burdened by thoughts of the decapitated King Charles I, and those spotlighting David’s flighty first beloved, Dora (Morfydd Clark), whose awful fate in the novel is literally rewritten on screen with equal parts absurdity and poignance.
, an ambitious interweaving of the adventures of the fictional Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur with the life of Jesus, was the bestselling novel of its day, a work noted for its ability to make Christianity accessible to modern readers and ground the stories of the New Testament in the real world.
But in the public consciousness, Ben-Hur’s life is understood as the lead-up to a chariot race.
Even as early as 1907, the first film adaptation of the novel, a 15-minute silent one-reeler, stripped away the vast bulk of Wallace’s opus, leaving little more than the chariot race.
Soon after, Wallace’s publisher put out a special edition of the novel excerpting only the text of the race scene, which it accompanied with detailed illustrations.
It’s at the level of casting that the film is most original, since Iannucci has taken a color-blind approach: an Indian David, a Hispanic Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), a Chinese Mr. Racial distinctions are further clouded by the fact that, say, the black Mrs.
Steerforth (Nikki Amuka-Bird) can be mother to a very white son (Aneurin Barnard) with nary a Victorian-era eyebrow raised.
The oppressive fantasy that’s racism is elided and exploded, to the point that it draws that much more attention to Dickens’s timeless themes of class condescension and socioeconomic struggle.
The downside is that the degree to which those themes resonate vary from scene to scene and from character to character. The actor does, however, brilliantly deliver the film’s killer penultimate line about the fiscal potential of a writing career, a little bit of his merciless Malcolm Tucker from seeping through.
It all flies by in a flurry of forgettable, perfunctory images.
The scene, like the rest of the film, is a hasty retread that never finds a way to distinguish itself from its numerous forebears.