Kingdom of Heaven Review
The year 1180 and the Middle East is in a mess. La plus ca change… But our story begins with Balian (Bloom), a moody French blacksmith, outcast from his village due to his wife’s suicide following the death of their baby son. Luckily at this point, a stranger – who we soon come to know as Godrey of Ibelin, Baron and all-round good egg (Neeson) – rides into town in search of horseshoes and his long-lost son, who happens to be Balian (who’d have thunk it!) and whisks him off to the Holy Land in search of honour and glory.
So far, so convenient. Unhappily Godfrey dies en route to Jerusalem, though not before knighting young Balian. His untimely death actually works in Balian’s favour, as he rocks up in Jerusalem with remarkably little effort, having charmed everyone he meets including a Saracen leader. In Jerusalem itself he is greeted with delight as Godfrey’s heir and seemingly within minutes is dining with the leprous King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and bedding his married sister, the Princess Sibylla (Green), to the irritation of her ambitious husband Guy de Lusignan (Csokas). He claims his inheritance, transforms his arid lands into a lush and prosperous farm through an irrigation scheme, and is generally seen as a chip off the old block.
Unfortunately Christian Jerusalem is divided between the King’s party, led by Tiberius (Irons), who have brokered an uneasy peace with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud); and the warmongering Knights Templar under Guy and his sidekick Reynard (Gleeson, sporting a fetchingly dyed beard). The Templars know that they only have to bide their time – the king can’t live much longer and then war will be theirs for the taking, with only Balian standing in their way.
Kingdom of Heaven is Ridley Scott’s latest epic adventure and is remarkably similar, though inferior, to Gladiator. Heroic leader who only really wants peace – check. Kingly sort ditto. Feckless, selfish brute inherits – check. Massive set piece battles using handheld cameras– check. There’s even a fight where someone does the two handed decapitation move introduced by Maximus. But what Gladiator had at its core was a simple, human story, a man who just wanted to get back to his wife and son, and this is what Kingdom of Heaven sadly lacks.
The film looks amazing and there are some superb set piece battle scenes. When Balian’s small army of knights take on Saladin’s two hundred thousand horse, the camera soars up and we get an eagle eye view of the armies charging across the battle plain before cutting back to the thick of the melee, feeling the ground shake under the horses’ hooves and the impact as the front lines meet. The Siege of Jeruslam is as good as the battle of the Pelennor Fields, and costumes (especially Eva Green’s) and locations are all fantastic, polished and perfect.
So what’s wrong with it? Two things.
Firstly, the politics. In their attempt to be even handed, Scott and screenwriter William Monahan muddy the waters. If anything, the Muslims are presented as tremendously patient and forebearing, only going to war when they are goaded beyond endurance and their people, including Saladin’s own sister, are being murdered. Balian’s last stand, in defence of the ordinary people of Jerusalem, is presented as proto-democratic, which is anachronistic and unconvincing, as is his little speech to the Jews, Muslims and Christians – he comes across as some New Labour local councillor with a multicultural brief. The audience needs someone to root for and a proper victory, instead of which Balian surrenders the city and goes home.
Ah Balian. Part of the blame again lies with Scott and Monahan – Balian has everything to play for, but has nothing to lose, and seems so distant from earthly ambition, so keen to be a perfect knight, that its impossible to care about him. He’s oddly passive, falling into one situation after another, but handily endowed with all the skills that he might need – he is in turns a blacksmith, farmer, irrigation expert, surveyor, general, military strategist and politician. As a medieval blacksmith he’d be lucky if he knew how to read! His perfection and nobility make him, sadly, really dull – he’s not tempted by power, not even for a moment. He just wants to be good.
But sadly a large part of the blame has to lie squarely on the newly broad and buff shoulders of Orlando Bloom. I actually like Orlando Bloom (I also like Keanu Reeves) and thought his impassive features suited the character of Legolas, but here, although he looks the part, he shows that he is not yet capable of expressing a normal range of emotions. Balian is in mourning – he looks moody. Balian finds out that he is a knight and owns 1000 acres – he looks moody. Balian is offered the kingdom and the princess on a plate – guess what – he looks moody. This is ok at the beginning of the film when he is meant to be grumpy but he looks grumpy all the time – does he ever smile? Is there something wrong with his teeth? If he keeps being cast as such one-dimensional, charisma-free, Dudley-Do-Right characters Bloom’s fall may be as quick as his meteoric rise. Luckily he is surrounded by a superb supporting cast, who carry off the acting honours, but there is a gaping hole where the film’s heart should be.
Kingdom of Heaven isn’t bad by any means. It’s a big, spectacular handsome film, a triumph of style over substance. I just wish it had more soul.
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