It must be tough being Morgan Freeman. All the time, he wants to express his acting talent in a whole range of arthouse movies and voiceover documentaries, but casting directors keep sending him major big-budget roles that call for a certain type of character.
You know the type. Elderly. Wise. Full of experience. Black, but apparently non-threatening (Very important with white American audiences. Can’t think why, at the moment). He’s a bit like Whoopi Goldberg, only male - and a tad less sweary that Samuel.L.Jackson or Lawrence Fishburne.
Morgan’s tried to extend his range, but something keeps going tragically wrong. Let’s study a few examples from his vast back-catalogue…
Glory (1989) Elderly, wise old guy in the Union Army
Driving Miss Daisy (1989) Elderly, wise old guy working as a chauffeur
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) Elderly, wise old medieval Muslim
Unforgiven (1992) Elderly, wise old cowboy
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Elderly, wise old prisoner
Seven (1995) Elderly, wise old detective
Amistad (1997) Elderly, wise old survivor of slavery
Deep Impact (1998) Elderly, wise old President of the USA
Bruce Almighty (2003) Elderly, wise old deity
Million Dollar Baby (2004) Elderly, wise old former boxer
Evan Almighty (2007) Elderly, wise old cross-dressing deity
The Bucket List (2007) Elderly, wise old mechanic on a voyage of personal discovery (slight departure from the norm here.)
Feast of Love (2007) Elderly, wise old man on a voyage of personal discovery (aaah…)
Wanted (2008) Elderly, nasty old assassin (something going wrong here?)
The Dark Knight (2008) Elderly, wise old weapons designer (Back on form again)
Invictus (2009) Elderly, wise old South African president (Yep. Hope the accent was OK. Anybody know?)
RED (2010) Elderly, wise old secret agent
Dolphin Tale (2011) Elderly, wise old designer of dolphin tails.
Now, acting is an uncertain profession. And if we’re going to have a go at ‘established male character actors’, we could probably say much the same about Sean Connery, Harvey Keitel, Arnold Schwarzenegger or a host of other famous faces (Are there women character actors? Sandra Bullock, maybe?) But it would be nice if just occasionally, our Morgan could… you know… stop being so wise and nice.
And with that we turn to Ben-Hur (2016), or as it should really be retitled, Ben-Hur- the Soap Opera. Yes, our Morgan does his ‘wise old’ shtick again, saying his lines with the same old slow, measured tone that sounds incredibly plausible because it is Morgan Freeman talking, but his acting and star stature unfortunately highlight the problem with this turkey.
It’s the script. Yes, the sea-battle is excellent, capturing the claustrophobia and terror of galley-slave life below-decks in the heat of a CGI battle. And the chariot race is actually rather good, and probably worth the price of admission- just. And the person who plays Jesus is anonymous (and therefore authentic-looking) enough. But as soon as anyone opens their mouth, then it all goes as belly-up as Judah Ben-Hur’s galley does at the business end of a Greek pirate-ship’s battering ram.)
Messala Severus: You should have stayed away.
Judah Ben-Hur: You should have killed me.
Messala Severus: I will.
[chariot race begins]
Yep, that’s the level. And so much of the script involves characters describing what they are feeling and explaining bits of the plot to each other, instead of actually getting on and delivering it- ‘telling’, not ‘showing’. One of the great scenes from the original 1959 movie had two leprosy victims suddenly experiencing a miraculous healing. It’s beautifully done, with a great sense of spiritual power suddenly breaking out across a wounded land. In this film, one of the victims actually cries out ‘We've been healed!’, underlining the moment with thick blue felt-tip, just in case the audience can’t see she’s got her face back.
As for the great rivalry at the heart of the film (Judah Ben-Hur and his childhood friend Messala), we’re treated to a bromance of slightly conflicted loyalties that lacks any real bite. The 1959 Messala (played by Stephen Boyd) had a real Roman viciousness about him, referencing popular memories of real-life conquerors defeated 15 years previously. The 2016 Messala is a poor confused lad, driven by circumstances to do bad things, but still ultimately just someone in want of a nice big hug to make it all right. It’s a PC Roman occupation, in which we’re presented with the Roman point of view as well, when legionnaires get massacred by local terrorists and occupation forces argue over how to make an appropriate response. (See what they’re doing, there? It’s the Middle East. Come on, think! We're trying to be relevant here!) Oh, and Jesus sounds like he’s quoting someone else's lines. Who would that be? (Oh yes. Jesus.) As a rule, great storytelling involves showing, not telling- and there’s far too much ‘telling’ going on in this film.
And this brings us back to Morgan Freeman, whose performance (as Morgan Freeman) gives the film a hint of gravitas by simply being the guy he’s played so often before. I hope he was paid well. But whilst he undoubtedly needs to keep his bank balance bubbling along by starring in films like this, I’d like to think that our Morgan has the freedom to do something a bit more outlandish in his extreme old age. Perhaps he could do a few more villains, and most especially, the sort of villain who doesn’t have a change of heart before the end.
Morgan Freeman as the Devil? That would be fun.
Morgan Freeman as Kermit the Frog, a failed theatrical impresario putting on bad musicals? Maybe.
Morgan Freeman as Tigger? Who knows?
Morgan Freeman as King Lear? Now that would be genuinely worth seeing.
Come on Hollywood. Give the man a chance. He was born in 1937. He's been elderly for quite a long time now. He can't keep it up for ever.