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A Commoner’s Tale

 

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott, USA / UK, 2005

Rating: 3.0

 

Posted: May 9, 2005

By Laurence Station

Kingdom of Heaven is a handsomely mounted historical epic that takes place late in the 12th century, between the Second and Third Crusades. King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), a dying leper who hides his disfigured face behind ornate silver masks, has benevolently opened the holy city to all faiths. Alas, tensions are brewing between Christian knights who’ve come to the Holy Land to do God’s Will (and potentially secure enormous fortunes in the process) and the Muslim forces led by the formidable Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Something’s got to give, and Ridley Scott -- who hit a critical and box office home run with Gladiator -- appears to be just the director to show us exactly what that something is.

But there are a few problems. Like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven plays fast and loose with the known record -- although to be fair, what is changed has mostly to do with dramatic expediency and not some radical reconfiguration of history. Also, as with Gladiator, the entire success of the film rests on the shoulders of its leading man. Russell Crowe proved up to the task in Gladiator; Orlando Bloom, playing moody French blacksmith Balian, doesn’t fare so well. Part of the blame for this rests with William Monahan’s script, which doesn’t adequately flesh out Balian or give the character a direct focus for his actions. Like Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator, Balian loses his family, but it’s not because of betrayal; Balian’s wife kills herself after their child dies at birth. Conveniently, the father Balian’s never met, noble Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), rides into the village and offers Balian a chance to go crusading.

There are plenty of reasons for Balian to accept this offer. But having Balian initially refuse the request and then subsequently murder the village priest who inexplicably baits the young blacksmith by mentioning how his wife’s head had to be cut off because she’s a suicide just feels forced. The widowed, childless Balian is now a fugitive and, cliché of clichés, has nowhere to return to (even though he does just that by movie’s end). Mainly, Balian’s impulsive act gives Scott an excuse to stage a battle between Godfrey’s crusaders and the armed men who’ve come to arrest Balian. It’s an exciting sequence, but it’s contrived to give the audience a placeholder thrill until a larger scale showdown occurs well into the two-and-half-hour film’s running time.

Unsurprisingly, Godfrey dies before reaching the Holy Land. (Liam Neeson’s made this type of fatherly-mentor-figure-who-croaks-before-the-climax a staple of his resume, from Star Wars Episode I to Gangs of New York.) Undeterred, the recently knighted Balian soldiers on to Jerusalem and has the good fortune of easily winning over the allegiance of his father’s men. And, apparently through osmosis or some enigmatic divine blessing, Balian the blacksmith is able to pick up hand-to-hand combat and siege defense tactics with credulity-straining ease. He’s also something of an enlightened thinker for the period, believing all people, regardless of station, can rise to any level in society simply by being good and noble in their pursuits. That the otherwise undistinguished Balian can rally the people of Jerusalem to stoutly defend their city against Saladin’s seasoned, 200,000 strong army, win the confidence of King Baldwin and steal the heart of his fetching sister Sibylla (Eva Green) -- all presumably because he’s the bastard son of the well-liked Godfrey -- simply doesn’t hold water. Balian’s ascent from priest-murdering commoner to heroic defender of Jerusalem comes far too easily, and severely dampens any sense of danger or threat to Bloom’s character or any of the other principals.

Kingdom of Heaven’s climactic siege battle is impressive, though lacking in scale (and sheer sense of desperation) as the kind seen in another Bloom film, The Two Towers. And the film's ultimate resolution is watered-down, politically correct treacle about Muslims and Christians getting along and worshipping in peace. As popcorn fare, it’s mildly exciting. But clearly, Scott and company want the film to resonate with audiences today in regards to our current Middle East crisis (we know this because the title cards at the end spell out how we’re doing the same things all over again). And that haughtily instructive tact only reinforces how Scott and company have missed the larger point about what a film, first and foremost, is supposed to be: entertaining.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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