Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut) Review
Just as Arthur Miller did with The Crucible in the 1950s and as George Clooney recently achieved with Good Night, and Good Luck, the arts have frequently turned to recreating past events to make a contemporary political statement. Now Ridley Scott is joining the ranks in a bid to say something meaningful about the Christian-Islamic conflict, the west versus east war of ideology which has dominated our foreign affairs for the past decade; in doing so, Scott has made one of the best films of his career with Kingdom of Heaven. Set during the bloody Crusades of almost one thousand years ago, this historical epic is the latest in a long line of films to paint a modern-day crisis onto a gripping cinematic canvas. Starring Orlando Bloom as a knight entrusted with the responsibility of waging war on the Islamic armies in the Middle East, the film originally tanked at the box office during its summer 2005 release but it has now been given a new lease of life thanks to Scott's persistence and Twentieth Century Fox's cooperation. This director's cut, clocking in at over three hours of screentime, is the definitive version of a film that previously promised much but felt distinctly underwhelming in its previous theatrical incarnation.
France, 1184: a united group of righteous Crusaders return home under the leadership of Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). At the same time, Godfrey's illegitimate son Balian (Bloom) is mourning for a wife who he recently lost to a tragic suicide, made even the more pertinent by the community's decision to cut off her head in an act of religious defiance. Fuelled by anger and haunted by guilt, Balian quickly accepts Godfrey's offer to accompany him to Jerusalem in an attempt to achieve self-redemption and possibly even forgiveness for his late wife who may well be languishing in hell.
Encountering Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), a pompous and undignified British noble, and his beautiful princess Sibylla (soon-to-be Bond girl Eva Green), Balian begins to witness both the multiculturalism within Jerusalem itself and the inherent greed and sin which threatens to topple the Christians on this most self-righteous of Crusades. Soon Balian does battle in front of the lusting eyes of Sibylla, hoping to win her heart whilst defeating the powerful Muslim army which is lining up to fight in the name of their God; moral complications arise, however, when their leader Saladin turns out to be a more noble, righteous and ultimately worthy man than any of the Christian leaders. Whilst Balian fights to exorcise his own demons, he must weigh up the moral and mental consequences of this war...
After achieving such immeasurable critical and commercial success with 2000's Gladiator, it is unsurprising that Scott would soon be accused of attempting to recreate those former glories with a similar historical epic. However, such criticisms are misplaced since Kingdom of Heaven is a very different beast altogether, fuelled largely by an excellent script from William Monahan. Whilst Gladiator had pomp and spectacle, Scott's latest film is more subtle, more refined and ultimately more fulfilling. Granted, it does feature some exquisitely-shot battle scenes which balance the precarious line of CGI and real-action well, but the narrative always rests on the capable shoulders of Bloom's Balian as he attempts to wrestle with the film's more introspective themes. Religion is always a thorny issue to confront head-on, especially in today's climate of instability and engrained xenophobia, but the filmmakers have thankfully managed to create something with power and resonance which never supports or condemns either side's actions. Neutral, yes, but nonetheless completely engaging and utterly rewarding.
Much criticism has been levelled at Orlando Bloom in the past for being a weak leading man, a pretty boy who seems out of his depth the moment he loses his elfish ears. Well, in Kingdom of Heaven he sheds off this image by producing a performance worthy of accolade; his Balian is haunted, out of his depth, a mere blacksmith in the midst of one of the biggest conflicts of recent memory. His alienation is compounded by an acute sense of guilt and, for the first time, Bloom perfectly captures these emotions through facial expressions and moments of quiet reflection. The supporting cast are all similarly good, with Edward Norton and Ghassan Massoud delivering fine performances as the respective kings. Eva Green manages to bring a warm centre to a story of hatred and oppression, and whilst the romantic subplot felt contrived and unneeded in the theatrical cut, here it is put into perspective by the added characterisation which has been rightfully restored.
Ever since his work on Alien and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott has been a master of detail and a firm believer in the power of spectacle, and with Kingdom of Heaven he has taken this sentiment one step further. Special mention must also go to cinematographer John Mathieson for making full use of his colour palette, finding ice cold blues for France and bright, glittering hues for the scenes in Jerusalem. Huge, organic locations spill forth from the screen and assault the audience's senses; giant, messy, visceral battles show the horrors of war for all of its putrid glory. One of the film's greatest achievements is the dichotomy that runs underneath the surface, the two threads converging into one at the end of the picture – the power of emotion and the power of war. But, lines are never easy to draw and Monahan is intelligent enough to release that shades of grey always spring up from such conflicts. Saladin is simultaneously the face of the enemy but also a firm believer in compassion and redemption, and even the caricatures in the script (namely Guy de Lusignan) show moments of patriotism and righteousness.
Whilst audiences were disappointed by the anaemic theatrical cut, Fox have thankfully realised the errors of their ways and released an untarnished version of Scott's epic. The film flows in a way that it never did before, characters become more rounded instead of mere ciphers and the end result is a picture that packs a much greater punch – largely because of the increased development and elliptical narrative which cements the film's themes and builds on the plot's strengths. Yes, it might be slightly overlong and there is the occasional heavy-handed moment, but I commend the filmmakers for their gargantuan efforts in bringing a fascinating period of history to light whilst attempting to repair the divide between the Christian and Muslim faiths.
Coming just seven months after the theatrical cut received a strong 2-disc release, this 4-disc set showcases the director's cut in all of its glory with a meaty selection of extra features, luxuriously presented in an elegant digipack case. The menus, as one would expect from a recent Hollywood blockbuster, are very nice to look at and very easy to use. French and Spanish subtitles are provided during the main feature, which is split across the first two discs in the same vein as the recent Lord of the Rings extended editions.
I cannot compare this release to the theatrical cut, but suffice to say the video transfer is of reference quality in my mind. Scott employs various colour hues and elements of grain throughout the film to enhance locations and to add to the atmosphere, all of which have been faithfully recreated by the DVD image. I couldn't spot any digital artefacts and, unsurprisingly, no print damage is visible. The audio side of things is similarly pleasing, with an encompassing DTS 5.1 mix and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack for those without the capabilities to play the former. Both mixes use the surrounds to full effect – especially during the siege scenes – and dialogue is always reproduced crisply through the front channels. The film's score and extensive sound design are also used to good effect; an optional Spanish soundtrack is provided as well.
First things first: for those collectors among you, the extras on this edition do not match those already released on the two-disc set; "The Pilgrim's Guide" text commentary, the interactive production grid, the A&E/History Channel documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes aren't ported over. For completeness' sake, therefore, some might want to hang onto the earlier editions.
However, what we do get is more than enough. Kicking off with an informative and extensive audio commentary from Ridley Scott, William Monahan and Orlando Bloom (although all three are sadly recorded independently), they discuss the film's genesis, its themes and the contentious subject matter. The second commentary features executive producer Lisa Ellzey, visual effects supervisor Wes Sewell and first A.D. Adam Somner (again recorded independently); it's an interesting and varied track. The third and final commentary, from editor Dody Dorn, is a slightly different affair which discusses her personal thoughts about the film; interesting nonetheless.
Although the third and fourth discs in this set contain a voluminous amount of extra material, it is all categorised under six headings which combine to form "The Path to Redemption". With three segments of the documentary on the third disc and the other three on the fourth, it seems rather futile to dissect the documentary piece-by-piece, so I will instead focus on the highlights and simply say that this is a compelling and truly insightful example of documentary filmmaking.
Part I's best feature is the ability to view William Monahan's first draft, as well as taking a look at story notes and the chance to see the location scouting images and associated information. Very useful for budding filmmakers to see how a large-scale production such as Kingdom of Heaven evolved. Part II, focusing on key pre-production issues, is an interesting look at cast rehearsals, costume, production and weapon design, combining video footage with image galleries and text. The best bit of Part III is a 30-minute featurette entitled "Creative Accuracy: The Scholars Speak", during which various academics proffer their knowledge and support for Scott's vision.
The fourth disc kicks off with Part IV, containing a documentary which charters the turbulent production in Morocco; image galleries are also on offer. Part V, dedicated to post-production, contains a large assortment of deleted and extended scenes (with optional commentary), but it is the other feature on the disc – the sound and visual effects suite – which is the most interesting. Part VI concludes the extra material with a look at the release of the film, showcasing the usual EPK fluff (trailers, a video from the ShoWest presentation, press junket footage and video from the various international premieres), plus a whole host of image galleries. A small featurette entitled "Paradise Found: Creating the Director's Cut" is a nice addition which will no doubt be of interest to those fans who bought this edition over the anaemic theatrical cut.
A genuinely compelling historical epic (forget Troy and the recent batch of other contenders), Kingdom of Heaven is presented on a deluxe edition DVD which can easily be regarded as being definitive. Exhaustively comprehensive, this 4-disc set is surely a candidate for one of 2006's best DVD releases.