Another day, another Ridley Scott battle epic. Ah, well. If one had to choose a director to take us on one of these forays back to the historical eras of swords and arrows, throwing in your lot with Ridley would seem like a wise move, especially after the comparative turds Troy and Alexander. So where are we going this time around? Surprisingly enough, it’s the Crusades. Considering the present tensions in the Middle East and post-9/11 America’s uneasy relationship with Islam, this seems like a pretty ballsy place to go, but Ridley is up to the challenge.
Everything that fans of Gladiator came to love is back in spades; the epic battles, the anguished love affair, the gritty action sequences, the overwrought dialogue, and the blood ‘n’ guts heroism. It also has one of the best ensemble casts to be assembled for an epic in recent memory. The cinematography is beautiful, the sets fantastic, and the casting spot on. What Kingdom of Heaven needs more of is a blasted center to rein all of these great things in, because neither the story nor the leading actor possess enough gravitas to do so on their own.
This tale begins with Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith in spiritual and emotional turmoil over the death of his wife and infant child. He’s given a second chance by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a baron in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, who strolls in to let Balian know that he’s actually his real father. Godfrey and Junior set off for the Holy Land to find Godfrey’s self-styled “Kingdom of Heaven”; a place purported to be the apotheosis of peaceful ideology and tolerance. Poor ol’ dad doesn’t quite make the journey and bequeaths from his deathbed the title and land to his bastard son.
Balian arrives in Jerusalem and immediately becomes embroiled in the political intrigues of the court. The benevolent King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and his marshal Tiberius (Jeremy Irons) are trying to maintain an uneasy peace during these waning days of Christian rule. The Muslim armies commanded by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) are poised to kick the Crusaders out, and the warmongering of Guy de Lusignon (Marton Csokas) and Raynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) aren’t helping matters. Balian establishes himself to be a capable ruler of Ibelin, an ally to the peaceful king, and a reputable, chivalric knight. (Er, except when he bangs Lusignan’s wife, played by the pulchritudinous Eva Green.) Sadly, a chain of events sets off war, and Balian is called upon to defend the city of Jerusalem from certain annihilation.
To his credit, Orlando Bloom probably does the best acting of his career thus far. Where his earlier performances feel either overly strained or wooden, here he’s finally able to apply a moderate amount of restraint and pensiveness. Unfortunately, his acting chops just aren’t up to snuff as a charismatic leader of men. It’s not likely anyone would rally around a battle-cry like “C’mon! C’mon!” and when paired with Irons or Neeson, he’s easily outmatched.
Partly to blame in this regard, however, is William Monahan’s screenplay, which loses focus and falters into ambiguity. The story is essentially one man’s spiritual journey towards an understanding of God and morality, in which he finds that the answers lie in intuitive actions and deeds, and not the logistics of religion. If this were somehow linked to the climactic military confrontations of the second half, both could have been more powerful than the simple visceral spectacle they turn out to be.
Ah well. Scott had a pretty difficult task in tackling the religious conflict of the Crusades and giving an objective picture without being offensive. Don’t expect a history lesson, though. Most of the things that happen in the film only have vague historical accuracy, and the ideologies motivating the characters, particularly the peaceful multiculturalists, come solely from the contemporary era. The placement of Balian and his knights as the heroic defenders of all that is Good might also seem a little idealized and Eurocentric, but since when have these kinds of movies been about what really happened instead of a stunning visual experience?
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()