Saturday 13 September 2014


(Ridley Scott, 2005)

Balian: You go to certain death.
Templar: All death is certain.

If Kingdom of Heaven - the Directors Cut, not the manifestly inferior theatrical version, which is 45 minutes shorter - starred anybody other than Orlando Bloom in the lead role, it would be one of Ridley Scott's very best films. Bloom has never been better than in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where he is required mainly to seem unearthly and beautiful - Legolas doesn't really have any personality in the realistic sense. He is a heroic ideal, and Bloom, blessed with his good looks, manages that without difficulty. In much of his other work he is similarly required to look pretty, but he is hopelessly out of his depth when asked to express any actual emotion. In Kingdom of Heaven, where he is asked to handle huge emotions - grief, despair, love - he is blank-faced. His single expression is a sort of empty smoulder - he seems to have walked off the set of an aftershave commercial. His character, Balian, is driven through the film by a search for his faith, yet Bloom looks like he's searching for his iPod and isn't all that bothered if he finds it or not.
It's a pity, because he is surrounded by a truly classy cast of mainly European supporting actors, most of whom seem totally at home in the Medieval World Scott painstakingly, beautifully creates. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Jeremy Irons, Kevin McKidd, Martin Csokas and Brendan Gleeson all have big masculine presences, and Bloom seems dwarfed by all of them in his shared scenes. Eva Green is a fascinatingly complicated leading lady here, and Edward Norton offers a somehow Brando-esque but very effective voice performance as the masked Leper-King, Baldwin.
This is a complex, thematically ambitious epic, spending much of its running time detailing the political and religious divisions which beset the factions within the Holy Land during the Crusades. It is also an exploration of ideology and of the difference between faith and religion. That could be dull, but screenwriter William Monaghan, who wrote the dazzling dialogue for The Departed, shows that he can do the same for a vastly different world here, though there are a few clunky exchanges. Its contemporary resonances, dealing as it does with a battle in the Middle East between Christian and Muslim forces, are unavoidable and well-handled. It is fair-handed, with Saladin, the Commander of the Saracens, played by the charismatic Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud, emerging as one of the best and most likeable characters, while many of the Christians are plainly rabid animals using their religion as justification for slaughter.
The real glory of this film, though, is Ridley Scott's direction. It seems a synthesis of much of what he has done before - the reconstruction of Old Worlds in Gladiator and 1492 and The Duellists is here attempted on an even bigger canvas, and it is achieved more vividly and more beautifully than in any of those films. The ferocity of the battle scenes in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down is replicated here, again on a bigger, more beautiful scale. The contrast between the wintery mud and misery of Continental Europe in that era with the exotic melting pot of the Holy Land is brilliantly evoked. Indeed, the whole thing is textural masterpiece, always sensuous and visceral, with moments of pure poetry scattered throughout the story.
Its commercial failure is still no surprise. Aside from the gaping hole at its heart where a leading man should be, it's flaws are obvious and even its strengths are partially uncommercial - it is more complex and adult than any of the other modern epics, its conclusions about religion and war too ambiguous for popular acceptance. If Gladiator used a simple revenge story to great effect, Kingdom of Heaven has no such basic structure, its tale of a man searching for faith and redemption far too interior to drive such a big narrative emotionally. The film it most reminds me of is Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, another Epic with a miscast leading man and a downbeat, complex tone.

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