Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”, although employing the Crusades as the backdrop of religious history, is just about as religiously ascetic as a movie of this kind can be, and as such it tends to loom over the subject material. It is more about how the characters are affected by the events around them in human terms. Fanaticism is motivated by fear or greed, and doubt and humility and respect are the purest forms of religious expression. And so the Kingdom of Heaven may not be so much a place as a journey, both personal and intimate.
This journey is undertaken by Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who abandons life in France and travels to Jerusalem after his wife’s suicide, which was brought about by their son’s death. A title card at the outset informs us that Christians and Muslims co-habitat Jerusalem in an unstable peace. It appears that the Holy Land is just for rent. It has been said by other critics that Orlando Bloom here feels like nothing more than a human placeholder for a better actor, but the script appears to have its limitations as well. Balian is too stilted to be tender and too morose to be tenacious. But he does make a convincing leader because he is the first to fight for his convictions.
Still, there is a generous vitality returned to the film via the Director’s Cut that had seemingly been strip-mined from the theatrical version. Like Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” before it, much need characterization is restored post-mortem, such as the clarity of Balian’s relationship with his brother and the sidestory involving Sibylla (Eva Green) and her son. Because of the hatchet job, the theatrical version did quite poorly in the US. Instead of being sold based on its contemplative issues, it was marketed as an action film.
But “Kingdom of Heaven” barely functions on that kind of level. Violence comes suddenly and without expectation. Murder is perpetrated quickly and often. Battles are edited for their narrative and not for their action, occasionally ending without resolution (there is one part in the film where soldiers are fighting along a breached wall, and the scene shifts gradually to the end of the battle a few hours later, the motion of life coming to a dreary halt like cooling magma, the soldiers becoming about as lively as stones). Thus, the pacing so endemic to the large war scenes in “Lord of the Rings” and “Troy” is missing here. There is no buildup or catharsis, no catch and release. Though the choreography is dazzling, there is little thrill in their motions; only blood and violence and the kinetic energy rush that guards them every moment from death. Running throughout the film is a viable cynicism about war. This is in direct contradiction to Ridley Scott’s 2000 film “Gladiator”, in which violence sets Maximus free. Perhaps we are seeing here two sides of the same man.
The Middle Ages present problems, I think, for any filmmaker, since it lacks the extravagance of ancient times and the elegance of modern day, but “Kingdom of Heaven” is presented from beginning to end with a strong visual flourish. Any cinematic idiot can drench the screen in a blue to evoke fraudulent emotions, but Scott has such an eye for lighting and placement here that he knows exactly how to dictate his expectant feelings to us. The opening frame is of a blue landscape with the dark silhouette of a lone cross dominating the landscape and squeezing out the tiny Crusaders, while snow flies like ash in the wind. It almost has a sort of spectral ferocity to it. The costumes and set designs and music are so integral to the film that the setting itself becomes animated, taking on a life of its own.
Edward Norton, who in the past has worked the passive/aggressive thing well, defies all range here and plays one of the most unexpected parts in so eerie and enduring of a character, King Baldwin of Jerusalem, that all of his past roles seem hidden away beneath his mask. Like Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder”, except even more unrecognizable, his tricks are concealed right in front of us.
The best men in this film such as Balian and Baldwin are those who struggle with their decisions, humbled in light of their obvious faults, and are wary of the consequences of ideologies. When the Muslim leader Saladin picks up a fallen cross and places it respectfully on the table, it almost brings some hope that there can be peace in this world.
Ridley Scott (director) / William Monahan (screenplay)
CAST: Orlando Bloom … Balian
Eva Green … Sibylla
Jeremy Irons … Tiberias
Marton Csokas … Guy of Lusignan
Brendan Gleeson … Raynald of Chatillon
Edward Norton … King Baldwin of Jerusalem
David Thewlis … Hospitaller
Liam Neeson … Godfrey of Ibelin
Ghassan Massoud … Saladin
Alexander Siddig … Imad ad-Din
Michael Sheen … priest