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Film Review: Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven (2005; Directed by Ridley Scott)

For a director with seminal cinematic masterpieces on his resume who makes expensive, beautifully-shot, ambitious pictures with epic scope, vision and deep intellectual potentialities, Ridley Scott has a tendency to fly under the radar as far as buzzworthy film releases go. He can cast Russell Crowe as a grim Robin Hood to a sort of mass shrug from popular audiences. It took a heavy-handed suggestion of Alien prequel-hood to generate much of a film-geek frisson around Prometheus, and his forthcoming Moses vs. Ramesses ancient war epic already seems mired in racially insensitive and sometimes bizarre casting, like, say, Jesse Pinkman as Joshua. He’s not received a Best Director Oscar nomination for over a dozen years (since 2001’s Black Hawk Down, which has served as inspiration for the entirety of Paul Greengrass‘ work since then but is otherwise a bit forgotten). For an auteur of Scott’s stature, that’s an eternity in the wilderness.

Scott’s hoary, unwieldy medieval crusades narrative Kingdom of Heaven seems on the surface to typify this high-budget artistic wandering. Choosing the then white-hot action leading man Orlando Bloom to play a hirsute 12th-century blacksmith who finds himself commanding the defence of the holy city of Jerusalem from Saladin’s sieging armies probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But as Kingdom of Heaven wears on, it requires brooding thought and consideration from its star that Bloom, for all of his mastery of battle movement, can’t effectively summon.

Bloom’s Balian wends his way on a rambling quest to the Holy Land through one of the most vividly detailed and accurately-pitched onscreen visions of the medieval world ever realized. It’s a world predicated on the chilled closeness of mortality and the lofty, remote promises of escape from grim quotidian conditions in a blessed afterlife. Balian kills his grubby local priest (also his half-brother, a cameo for noted crafter of creeps Michael Sheen) for a slight to his suicided wife and chases after his nobleman father (Liam Neeson) to join his company in a Crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the infidel Muslims and perhaps gain divine forgiveness for his sins and those of his wife. Neeson’s Godfrey is a hard man who teaches him some fighting skills before inevitably shuffling off the mortal coil; he memorably boasts about fighting for two days with an arrow through his testicles, so he might know a thing or two worth passing along.

Eventually shipwrecking in the Holy Land, Balian befriends a Saracen (Alexander Siddig) who may be more than the well-spoken servant he seems to be. He then becomes embroiled in a rather complicated set of Crusader State political and military intrigues swirling around the leprous but honourable King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton in a metal mask, from behind which he outacts the vacant, subtextless Bloom for long stretches) and a few rather more morally leprous French noblemen (including Marton Csokas and a wonderful scene-stealing Brendan Gleeson). He tries to get away from the religiously-tinged conflicts, farming on an estate and tiptoeing around a fetching noblewoman (Eva Green), but is dragged back in by Saladin’s assault on the ragtag Christian garrison protecting Jerusalem.

20th Century Fox forced edits to Scott’s film that rendered it somewhat incoherent, and his longer but more fleshed-out Director’s Cut is a considerable improvement. If ponderously-paced, inhumanly scaled, but occasionally sweeping and transporting medieval sword-and-sandal stuff appeals to you, I’d mildly recommend the film in its extended form, rather than advise cautious avoidance in its truncated cut. It’s not only that every major character is rendered more rounded and real (particularly Green’s Sybilla), but the rhythms of Scott’s direction and narrative throughlines of William Monaghan’s script are kept intact and gain some measure of power and pathos.

Of course, Kingdom of Heaven‘s underlying politics are still entirely too liberal-humanist to be believable in the medieval context (the Braveheart Syndrome). It preaches faith-not-religion without recognizing the highly porous boundaries between the two, and undervalues the role of both religious fervour and the naked desire for land, wealth, and power in motivating Crusading Europeans to decamp from a crowded, wartorn continent to the deserts at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. It portrays Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and the Saracens sympathetically but also constructs them as an invading horde of Orcish Others to be dispatched in the hundreds lest they massacre every living thing inside the city walls. The Crusaders, with the exception of Balian and a wry Hospitaller (David Thewlis) who does not make it through the disastrous battle at the Horns of Hattin, are pretty uniformly complete bastards, next to which any Muslim misdeeds seem relatively slight.

Applying modern conceptions of compassion, justice, and international law to the medieval context is a foolish index to judge the moral profile of film characters, of course, but then Kingdom of Heaven panders to those conceptions fairly consistently. In a similar way, applying film criticism’s precepts to a late-period Ridley Scott historical epic on the basis of his earlier and more praised work (I refer less to Alien or Blade Runner than to his most recent unqualified critical and popular triumph, Gladiator) is also foolish, but it’s nonetheless always done. Kingdom of Heaven, especially in its Director’s Cut, has some features worth praising, but it hardly measures up to a standard that Scott once set but has now seen recede deep into the rear distance.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

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