The Summer 2005 season kicks off with Ridley Scott’s medieval epic set in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades. Orlando Bloom stars as a young blacksmith who discovers his father was a knight and travels to Jerusalem to follow in his footsteps. Eva Green plays the princess he romances there. Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton and Liam Neeson provide support. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
Ridley Scott has created visual marvels before, from the futuristic city in Blade Runner to the Roman Coliseum in Gladiator. Kingdom Of Heaven contains sights that are astounding even by those standards. Scott and his collaborators have brought medieval Jerusalem to teeming life and orchestrated battles that have to be seen to be believed. This is one of the most incredible looking movies ever put on the big screen. If you’re going to see it, make sure you do see it on a big screen – the bigger the better.
Visually, the film is brilliant. Dramatically, it stumbles. Don’t misunderstand me, it works perfectly well as an action movie and as a melodrama – this is a good film – but it aims to be more than that and it doesn’t realise its ambitions. Kingdom Of Heaven is structured as a spiritual journey, as a story of redemption and unfortunately the character making that journey is poorly developed, not very interesting and miscast to boot. That leaves a hollow centre that even Ridley Scott and his state of the art special effects can’t fully disguise.
As the twelfth century nears its end, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a Knight of the Crusades, returns to France to make amends to the illegitimate son he’s never acknowledged and to offer him his birthright. The young man, Balian (Orlando Bloom) has grown up a lowly blacksmith and he’s just suffered a great personal tragedy – his wife committed suicide after the death of their son. Adding to his grief is the church’s doctrine that suicides cannot enter heaven. Deciding abruptly to throw in his lot with Godfrey, Balian first takes a terrible revenge on the priest who condemned his wife, a revenge that leads to his father being killed in repercussion. Before his death, Godfrey anoints his son a knight and asks him to take his place in Jerusalem.
Balian arrives in the Holy Land to find Christians and Muslims living together under an uneasy peace. Jerusalem has been in Christian hands for 100 years but the military successes of Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the leader of the Muslim Saracens threaten to tip the balance of power. Saladin’s armies are vast and could easily overwhelm the Europeans so it’s fortunate that King Baldwin (Edward Norton), the Christian ruler of Jerusalem has been able to negotiate a lasting truce with him. King Baldwin, a leper forced to hide behind a mask and bandages, extends a warm welcome to Balian and asks for his service. Others are more suspicious of the newcomer.
There are those on the Christian side who want a war. The fanatical Knights Templar, led by Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), want to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land and they believe God would favour a Christian army against any force. Reynald organises attacks on Muslim pilgrims to try and provoke Saladin into breaking the peace. Baldwin’s right hand man Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) tries to keep the Templars in line but the king is growing sicker and when he dies, the kingdom will be left to his sister, the beautiful Sibylla (Eva Green). She’s married to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), a slimy thug who sides with the Templars. Guy takes an instant dislike to Balian but Sibylla finds the young knight intriguing.
Kingdom Of Heaven works well as a traditional historical epic building up to a big battle. Of course there have been many such films but what makes this one worthwhile is the superb job that’s been done of capturing the time and place of 12th century Jerusalem. The political and military strategies are interesting. William Monahan’s script is strongest when it’s giving us a firm grasp of who the players are and what they’re up to. There’s plenty of suspense in the last hour as the situation escalates and it looks like things can only end in tragedy.
The screenplay wants to be about more than a battle however – it’s also about a man’s soul. The problem is that this man, Balian is not a convincing, three-dimensional character. Orlando Bloom is too lightweight an actor to tackle the moral struggle going on within the knight. He’s fine as an action hero, decked out in armour and flashing a sword and he can give a rousing pre-battle speech but when he’s called upon to express inner turmoil, he puts on a miserable, anguished expression and leaves it there for most of the film. He confuses turmoil with glumness.
It’s not fair to lay all the blame upon the actor. The screenplay does Bloom no favours, setting Balian up poorly in a series of awkward opening scenes which don’t give us much of a clue as to what makes him tick and which show him committing an act that is never dealt with (it appears to have been forgotten in time for the closing scene). These scenes carry even less weight since, after Balian takes his oath as a knight, he becomes unflaggingly noble and moral. His morals are peculiar: they won’t allow him to go along with a court intrigue that would have saved thousands of lives but they do allow him to sleep with a fellow knight’s wife. The film never deals with this either. There isn’t even the obligatory scene where the lovers are caught and vengeance is sworn.
The relationship between Balian and Sibylla is pure Hollywood. Sibylla herself is little more than a puppet of the plot. Two thirds of the way through, she makes a decision so monumentally stupid – trusting someone no one in their right mind would trust – that her character never recovers. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of the constant cuts back to her sitting on her own and cropping her hair during the siege. It’s like the film is reminding us she’s still there. Eva Green is a very interesting actress. She was superb in The Dreamers and she does as well as can be expected here, making Sibylla mysterious and sexy before she’s hamstrung by the script.
The supporting cast have more success. Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons and Edward Norton contribute strong supporting performances, fleshing out their roles like the seasoned pros they are. Ghassan Massoud, a Syrian actor, makes a mesmerising Saladin. Special kudos must go to Brendan Gleeson for finding an original and entertaining way to play Reynard, the Templar leader who is on paper a one-dimensional villain. I’ve never seen an actor portray evil in such a matter of fact way.
The depiction of the Templars unbalances the film. Despite concerns that Kingdom Of Heaven would stir up anti-Muslim feelings, the Saracens are portrayed in a very positive light. With the exception of one hawkish advisor, all the Muslim characters are honourable and Saladin comes across as a wise and decent leader. The Templars on the other hand are depicted as barbarous fanatics who rape and murder in the name of God. No doubt these things happened but no doubt Saracen soldiers also behaved badly and this isn’t shown. Nor is any depth or motivation other than fanaticism given to the Templars – they’re just monsters like the English in Braveheart.
Of course this sort of simplistic revisionism is what we expect from Hollywood historical epics, just like we expect their medieval heroes to hold twenty-first century humanist values. I enjoy films like Braveheart for what they are and I enjoyed Kingdom Of Heaven on that level. I think I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t pretended to be a smarter film than it is. It wants to deal with spirituality and re-evaluate the Crusades and still incorporate silly, hissable villains. Marton Csokas as Guy of Lusignan is especially over the top. The actor plays him as a pantomime baddie with a permanent sneer frozen on his face.
A final complaint – the film feels condensed, like it was edited down from a much longer length. Characters who seem like they’re going to be important, like David Thewlis’s knight, disappear or are given nothing to do. The middle chapters, in which Balian takes over his estate and romances Sibylla, feel very truncated. There’s an awful lot of plot jammed into two hours and twenty minutes.
If there are fundamental problems with the script and with certain performances, there are none with the direction or any of the technical contributions. Ridley Scott doesn’t just give the film a sumptuous look, he keeps it moving at a pace that obscures many of its flaws until you think back over it afterwards. As always, Scott keeps his characters front and centre, never letting the action and the effects dwarf the human story. He’s a visual maestro with a human soul. While we’re talking about visuals, John Mathieson’s awesome cinematography must not pass uncredited.
The big climactic battle, the siege of Jerusalem is unquestionably the highlight of the film. There have been a lot of cinematic sieges in recent years. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and Troy come immediately to mind. Kingdom Of Heaven is a step up technically even from those films. Never have special effects and physical action been so well integrated as they are in the scenes where the Saracens try to scale the walls of the city with towering battle machines and the defenders try to topple them. Ridley Scott isn’t afraid to be brutal either and not just with the standard choppings and impalings. Men are burned alive by the dozen when the Christians pour tar down Saracen ladders and set it aflame. Scott even breaks a Hollywood taboo and actually shows horses killed in cavalry battles.
Kingdom Of Heaven sets a new benchmark for computer-generated special effects, outdoing even what Peter Jackson accomplished with Lord Of The Rings. The camera pans across cityscapes, past fleets of ships and over vast armies, none of which can exist in the real world and yet there was never a moment when I felt I was looking at CGI. Everything looks solid and alive, down to the smallest detail, like tiny flags fluttering in the wind. Adding to the realism, Scott shoots his CGI elements as if they were scenery, often putting them in the background and showing them out of focus. He doesn’t call attention to every effect like Michael Bay or Stephen Sommers. The usual giveaways, like unconvincing clouds of dust and unnatural, contrasting colours simply aren’t there. You know the technicians have done a good job when you catch yourself admiring the cinematography of shots that can’t have been created by a camera.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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