KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
In 1184, French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is in mourning for his wife who has committed suicide, an act that condemns her to hell. He is visited by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a knight returning from The Crusades in far-off Jerusalem. Godfrey reveals Balian is his son and asks him to join him in the Holy Land. Refusing at first, Balian’s mind is changed by promises of redemption for himself and his late wife. He arrives in Jerusalem at a moment of truce between the city’s Christian King Baldwin IV and Saracen leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Threatening the peace is ambitious Templar Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), whose wife Princess Sibylla (Eva Green) has fallen in love with Balian. When de Lusignan’s bloodthirsty followers provoke warfare with Saladin, Balian is left to defend Jerusalem from the Saracen hordes.
Review by Richard Kuipers
There’s no better juggler of intimate drama and epic spectacle than Ridley Scott, whose awesome skill just about makes Kingdom of Heaven work. Just about, but not quite, for this saga of armies engaged in holy warfare is severely hindered by a screenplay that borders on the dull and a leading man lacking the presence to impose himself in the manner such a film demands.
No match for Russell Crowe in Scott’s Gladiator despite packing on 13 kilos for the role, Bloom is altogether too slight both physically and in stature as an actor to convince as the humble village blacksmith who becomes a brilliant warrior and tactician leading the defence of Jerusalem.
Part of the trouble is the surrounding heavyweight cast: Jeremy Irons as the Christian king’s right hand man Tiberius, Brendan Gleeson as savage Templar warmonger Reynald of Chatillon and Liam Neeson as Balian’s noble father Godfrey. These experienced hands blend convincingly into the surroundings, but even behind a beard and regular spatterings of blood, Bloom simply looks like a contemporary actor in costume and not a 12th Century knight.
A screenplay depriving his character of motivations better tailored to the central casting choice doesn’t help his cause. Unfortunately, Balian’s wife is dead at the film’s commencement and is not seen in flashback or even mentioned once he decides to take up arms. The reason for that is it would complicate his subsequent and thoroughly conventional romance with his enemy’s wife, Princess Sibylla.
It’s a shame to see such familiar plot machinery edging out the very emotional layers that imbued (again) Russell Crowe’s quest in Gladiator with such potent emotional power. We’ll all remember Maximus being reunited with his bride, but there’s little chance Balian’s fate will etch itself onto the collective consciousness.
Yes, Kingdom of Heaven delivers all the breathtaking action you could want, but we all knew that before buying our tickets, right? Nevertheless, the spectacle of Jerusalem under attack by a 200,000 strong Saracen army is a sight to behold and credit must be given for the casting of Arab actors in all applicable key roles. Particular kudos goes to Syrian actor/director Ghassan Massoud, whose delicately nuanced performance as détente-seeking Saladin shows a merciful face of Islam generally not part of the tableau in the days when Hollywood churned out these kind of epics like hamburgers.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in William Monahan’s first produced screenplay is its relentlessly circular, self-referential nature. The first half of his script is littered with musings about the nature of God’s will and the seeking of redemption, all of which is very interesting on a philosophical level but only serves to bog down the drama. All the spiritual talk comes full circle in the second half, which laboriously repeats the earlier pearls of wisdom, only this time with the battle-scarred weight of hindsight. Clever, yes, but this is textbook scriptwriting class stuff and not the sophisticated next levels we can reasonably expect.
As for references to what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, Jeremy Irons scores the most memorable line when he says “I used to think I was fighting for God, now I’m ashamed to be fighting for wealth and land”. As always, Scott puts all his money (in this case $US130 million) right up there on screen and provides a good enough time as long as you’re not expecting any poetry to interfere with a very straightforward spectacle.
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KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (MA)
CAST: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons
PRODUCER: Ridley Scott
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
SCRIPT: William Monahan
CINEMATOGRAPHER: John Mathieson
EDITOR: Dody Dorn
MUSIC: Harry Gregson-Williams
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Arthur Max
RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 5, 2005