May 05, 2005

Amateur Movie Review: Kingdom of Heaven

I liked this movie a lot more when it was called The Two Towers.

No, that’s just being facetious. While Kingdom of Heaven borrows quite liberally from Braveheart, LOTR and director Ridley Scott’s own Gladiator, this movie stands on its own. It may be a little rickety at times, but it stays up.

A buffed, slightly less feminine Orlando Bloom stars as Balian. He’s a broken man when the movie opens; a blacksmith morning the death of his newborn son and his wife’s subsequent suicide. He’s visited by Geoffrey (Liam Neeson); a Baron who claims Balian is his illegitimate son. After some initial hesitation, Balian eventually joins Geoffrey in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He becomes a knight, and inherits his father’s lands.

Kingdom of Heaven is set within the time of the leper King Baldwin, played here by Edward Norton. Baldwin, though young and infirmed, was a wise king who had set a hard, edgy peace with Saladin and his united Arab legions. Jerusalem, brutally conquered and “purified” of Muslims in 1099, was by then the only Christian area in the Middle East. Baldwin died young, and his successor, Guy de Lusignan, was a foolish buffoon who wanted war with Saladin. The movie and actual history track closely for the most part. There was a time of relative peace in the Holy Land during the reign of Baldwin. Guy was his idiot successor who, along with his ally Reynald and the Templars, goaded Saladin into an all-out war.

Ridley Scott isn’t quite in top form for this movie. His Gladiator was a better look at the ancient world, but KoH comes close. He makes excellent use of the Middle East setting; this movie is full of sweeping desert vistas, and old Jerusalem is almost a character in the movie with all its bewilderingly crowded glory. The battle scenes are brutally chaotic, all spurting blood and splattered mud. The single most effective shot comes after a battle. The Crusaders have been decimated, their bodies lying in the sand and the camera pans to show hundreds of vultures circling overhead. It’s a shot that defines the movie.

Kingdom of Heaven is cast very well, though as with most historical epics, the supporting characters seem far more interesting than the lead. Neeson as Balian’s father has a very weighty presence, one that leaves the film far too early. He’s basically replaced by Jeremy Irons, frighteningly intense as always, as the King’s advisor Tiberius and David Thewlis as the Hospitaler. Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud brings a depth and dignity to the role of Saladin, which is matched by Norton as the King. As a leper, he is unable to show his face of his skin, and you can sense both his pain and wisdom. The revelation of this film is Eva Green as the Princess (later Queen) Sibylla. She is radiantly beautiful in the beginning, but once the Crusaders’ fortunes turn for the worse, her physical presence seems to suffer along with the city. She, with her giant luminous eyes, becomes increasingly magnetic. The only misstep is Marton Czokas as Guy. He’s way over-the-top, almost foppish at times as the sneering, contemptuous Frenchman.

Oh yeah, there is that Bloom guy too. He doesn’t carry the movie, but then he isn’t asked to do so. The best move Scott makes in this film is surrounding Orlando Bloom with talent like Irons, Green, Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson as the nearly insane Reynald. Balian is a bit of a cipher. As with many epic movies, the lead is also the Hero, and at times Bloom seems to collapse under that. Still, he acquits himself well here, and doesn’t look too much out of place with this veteran cast. As always, he is an excellent physical actor. You can really see his grace, even when he is hesitant during his early training as a knight. By the end of the film he moves with a true sense of command. One quibble: his version of the “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom” speech is laughably bad, both in Bloom’s trying too hard delivery and the awful text.

With any movie about European aggression, especially in these difficult times, it becomes very easy for filmmakers to glorify the non-western culture involved. Scott avoids this trap for the most part. While he doesn’t shy away from the bloodthirsty aspect of the Crusades, neither does he revel in it. The point is made a couple times of the brutality of the early Crusaders, and it should be: the massacre in Jerusalem (every Muslim within the city walls was hacked to pieces) is an act of utter barbarity. Scott doesn’t let the Arabs get off completely either. While his Saladin is basically a noble warrior, he is also capable of cruelty, such as his personal execution of Reynald.

Scott also wisely shies away from making this film about more than it is. With the current, and seemingly neverending trouble in the Middle East, it would have been easy to make this movie a parable about US aggression or the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or a million other things. He doesn’t do this. He makes a fine film about a few extraordinary men in an extraordinary place. Only once does this movie touch on the bigger picture. At the very end, when Balian and Saladin meet on the battlefield, Belian asks, “What is Jerusalem worth?” As he walks away Saladin says, with a very sad grin, “Nothing…. everything”.

Kingdom of Heaven is a good –not great- film. It’s noticeably clunky at times and falls flat in others, but it has heart and class.

Posted by Frinklin at May 5, 2005 09:20 PM

I loved Edward Norton's King Baldwin. He did a great job with a noble character, stricken with a terrible illness. He was in the movie so very little, but he had a great presence on screen.

Posted by: ensie at May 6, 2005 12:20 PM
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