This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
You no doubt remember Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, 2000’s sword swinging epic that paved the way for a small cadre of comparatively terrible historical drama fighty things such as Troy and Alexander. Returning to the well with this epic tale of Crusade era fisticuffs, Kingdom of Heaven mixes the fast ‘n’ loose fine accuracy of his earlier work with the first real mainstream lead role for Orlando Bloom, assuming you ignore the largely ignored Calcium Kid. While we’d expected the law of diminishing returns to be backed up by the law of diminishing leads, thankfully I’m wrong. Again. Something of a recurring theme, really.
The boyish, pointed eared arrow tosser here takes the mantle of Balian, a surprisingly eloquent blacksmith in a small village understandably upset about the death of his wife and child. After offing a grave robbing priest, his previously unknown father Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson) serendipitously shows up to claim him as his heir. With a lack of options open to him, Balian joins him on the dangerous road to Jerusalem in search of forgiveness and service to his fellow man as a newly ordained knight.
Jerusalem at this time is occupied by the English, run as an open city for all faiths and nationalities as part of an uneasy truce the leper King Baldwin (Ed Norton, not that you’d know it thanks to his natty silver mask) has engineered with his counterpart of the Muslim nations Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Tensions run high, and they aren’t helped when the sensible rule of Baldwin and the armies under the command of Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are undermined by the bible-bashing loonatic fringe of the Christian Church, the Knights Templar. With influential warmongers such as Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) and Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) raiding Muslin supply trains to appease their heathen killing bloodlust, it’s not long before open war is forced.
An audience cannot live by large scale warfare alone, so a human interest story is tacked on involving Baldwin’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green) falling for the fine and upstanding young Balian, which wouldn’t be too remarkable were she not already married to Lusignan. Oooh, love triangle! Spicy, especially as Lusignan already hates Balian because, as best as we can gather, Lusignan is an absolute tool. This becomes something of an irrelevance by the time the film swings round to the real reason this film was made; the siege of Jerusalem. Just as well, as all this film’s emotion comes from battle rather than relationships.
While you wouldn’t want to hand this in as your homework for a history lesson (Baldwin would have been buried some time before the opening credits, for instance), Ridley Scott knows how to make large scale battles work as light entertainment. While Troy was stale and turgid and Alexander confusing and turgid, Kingdom of Heaven feels so damn convincing that even if events didn’t strictly unfold this way, they should have done. I’ll take fun over accuracy any day. It’s not as distinctive a work as Gladiator in pure visual terms for reasons I can’t quite quantify. Perhaps the ever growing ranks of films with ever growing ranks of CG footsoldiers has diluted the sense of scale and awe, despite Kingdom of Heaven doing it as well as anyone else has.
You may spot the not-particularly-subtle anti-religion undercurrent present, indeed if you’re sat in the screen next door watching Cursed (perish the thought) you’re likely to notice it. The notion of opportunistic people twisting perfectly good religious ideas into excuses to be really nasty to each other shouldn’t come as a revelation to anyone living in these scaremongering times, and Scott goes out of his way to show that the Crusades were more an exercise in land and resource grabbing than of any lofty theologic ideals. I’ve no doubts that this film has the potential to offend the easily offended of both faiths, although given that it’s rather transparently Scott’s and writer William Monahan’s opinions on screen rather than gospel truth, so to speak, ought to cool tempers. Ought to. We guarantee nothing.
For the growing swathes who regard this religion lark as little more than a waste of a perfectly good lie-in opportunity, they’re likely just to nod in agreement and move on to be impressed by the tactical nous shown by Balian. Refreshing too is the entirely pragmatic view he takes of his defence of the city and the souls who reside within, with none of the tedious ‘fight to the last man’ posturing that often comes of seemingly desperate defenses of seemingly lost causes.
If I’m honest, my entire knowledge of the Knights Templar comes from a single dubious source, the 1996 point ‘n’ click game Broken Sword. From this I’d gathered that they were pretty decent fighters, which sort of begs the question as to why the have the tactical ability of a comatose giraffe. Claiming God is on their side is no substitute for supply lines and water during a desert march. If this is their best efforts it’s a minor miracle the order survived long enough to build up a mythos around them.
While Bloom still seems too freshfaced to have the presence the script ascribes to him, it’s a performance that will do him great favours after a rather bland and wimpy turn as Paris in Troy. If you’re going to be picky about it, yes, he does play the role the same as Paris, and as Legolas, an even as your Pirates of the Caribbean fella (that being ‘honourable English gentry’), but at least there’s a discernable backbone here and why stray from the formula that’s doing his bank manager so proud? I suppose he’ll end up having to take a role as a donkey-raping paedophilic necrophiliac to break out of the stereotype he’s building for himself, but the adage of ‘make hay while the sun shines’ hold true even today, and may come in handy for the donkey.
That he’s not upstaged by the cast of thousands is commendable, that he’s not upstaged by an on form Jeremy Irons or Liam Neeson is remarkable. The direction is pacy, the action punchy and suitably weighty to give you something to chew over on the way home, especially with the aforementioned religion baiting. Overall the work is of such high quality I’m left wondering why I can’t get more worked up over what is, by any standard, as good a film as we deserve.
Lacking a certain, dunno whit? Just a light fatigue of the histo-epic genre which enjoys it’s renaissance at the moment? The fact I’m a grumpy old curmudgeon? The latter seems more likely, especially as I can’t think of any part of the film I actively disliked. At the risk of sounding somewhat silly, let’s just say that it’s pretty darn neat and run away when no-one’s looking.