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Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven
reviewed by Ian Dawe

October 09, 2005 | For all its aspirations to be the next Lawrence of Arabia, I felt truly stirred by Ridley Scott's latest film only once. Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith and illegitimate son of a crusading nobleman, arrives in Jerusalem for the first time. Poor and unrecognized, he asks an old man, "Where was Christ crucified?" It's the kind of question you can ask in Jerusalem, even now. The old man points to a hill. Balian climbs the hill and in an absorbing, spiritually-charged montage, searches his heart for signs that God is speaking to him in this holiest of places. He does not hear much. In that lies the most intriguing notion in this attractive but otherwise unsatisfying historical epic.

Ridley Scott is one of those directors that can always be relied upon to deliver a visually interesting film, often with good performances from good actors, but sometimes he simply drops the ball. Legend (1986) suffered from a glut of contemporary fantasy films and Kingdom of Heaven perhaps suffers from the same symptom. If it had come along before Scott's own Gladiator (2000), it would have been seen as a landmark achievement in historical re-imagination. As it stands, there is so much sound and fury in the film that it ultimately grows more tiresome than inspiring.

The story is set in 12th century middle east, in a fascinating time in which the first European crusaders have long since taken Jerusalem and established a new kind of kingdom there. By importing elements of their culture and adapting to the surrounding Muslim culture, a strange, interesting kind of nation was in the process of being born. Like most colonial cultures, the second and third generation of Europeans began to feel more at home in their adopted land than in the place of their ancestors. Balian, the afore-mentioned blacksmith, is recruited by his long-lost father (played with great aplomb, but also a certain amount of auto-pilot by Liam Neeson) to return to the "new world" and inherit his estate. Having just lost his wife and child, Balian has little reason to say no, and so he goes. Along the way, he eventually becomes responsible for the defense of the holy city itself against the Muslim General and King Saladin, who means to re-claim it after a century for Islam.

Scott has been to this territory before. The clearest progenitor in his oeuvre is 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), which dealt with similar themes of colonization and nouveau riche struggling for their piece of the pie. That film was one which I greatly admire, as much for its Vangelis soundtrack and weighty Michael Wincott performance as anything else. This time around, however, the film doesn't quite deliver.

That's frustrating, for even with its drawbacks, the movie offers much to be admired. Edward Norton gives an astonishing performance as a crusader King dying of leprosy, made all the more astonishing by the fact that his face is obscured through his entire performance with an immobile silver mask. Brendan Gleeson also gooses the film's energy level quite a bit with his exuberant take on Reynald, a war-hungry Knight. Jeremey Irons delivers the goods as the scheming, wise Tiberias. Of course, because it is a Ridley Scott film, the visuals are spectacular, but in this post-Gladiator, post-Lord of the Rings age, they all have a feeling of "been there, done that". Great technical excellence, to be sure, but in the service of spectacle rather than a compelling or original story. Add to that a certain hesitant quality to Orlando Bloom in the lead (perhaps this was too much for his, too soon) and the product ultimately just doesn't satisfy.

For the DVD, Fox produced an extensive array of extras, probably anticipating that the film would be more successful than it was. Disc one contains the film in a nearly flawless anamorphic transfer, complete with the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks we've come to expect from films of this nature. The only extra here is a "pop-up video"-style text commentary dealing with the history of the period that is fairly informative, although a quick scan of any history book from your local library will teach you more. The second disc contains a long series of production featurettes, organized in an "interactive production grid" that divides them up according to the perspective of the individual involved (director, cast and crew). While this might seem innovative, the featurettes are ultimately rather bland and often descend into that dreaded "happy talk". You also get two complete TV specials: "Movie Real: The Kingdom of Heaven", from A&E and an episode of "History vs. Hollywood" from the History Channel. Of the two, the History Channel segment is the most disposable and seems tweaked and simplified to the point of being insulting to any serious student of history. The A&E special is only marginally better. Both rely on film footage and interview with the filmmakers. A good, comprehensive PBS-style documentary about the crusades would be more to my taste, but perhaps I'm just odd that way…

A freelance writer and longtime film enthusiast, Ian Dawe is now completing a Master's Degree in Film History. He currently teaches at Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia.

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