Wednesday 24 August 2016

Movie Review: Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

A historical epic based on real events, Kingdom Of Heaven is ambitious in scope and thoughtfully examines turmoil in the Holy Land during the Crusades. While the politics and battles are engaging, the film lacks emotional depth.

It's 1184, about a hundred years after the first wave of crusaders established a Kingdom in Jerusalem. Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith in the French countryside, has just suffered the loss of his wife through suicide. He reconnects with his father, the respected Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a crusader making his way back to the Holy Land. Godfrey is wounded in a skirmish along the way, but Balian makes it to Jerusalem, where he finds the Leper King Baldwin (Edward Norton) ruling Jerusalem by allowing peaceful coexistence among all faiths and maintaining hold of a tenuous peace with Saracen leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).

The Marshal of Jerusalem Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) is an ally of the King, but the Knights Templar, under the leadership of Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and Raynald of Ch√Ętillon (Brendan Gleeson) are blood thirsty and power hungry, eager to set off a war with Saladin to impose Christian rule. To complicate matters, Guy is married to Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green). Balian settles down to working his father's lands, but with the Knights agitating for a war and Baldwin in ailing health, peace in the Holy Land is about to crumble.

Directed by Ridley Scott, Kingdom Of Heaven combines grand scenes of battle with an individual quest for life's true purpose. The film is passable both as a spectacle and a human drama, but never soars in either direction. Balian's story is interesting but never breaks through to a genuine level of engagement, while the army clashes are intense but often disintegrate into extras being thrown into a meat grinder.

At 144 minutes in length (with a much longer Director's Cut also available), the film is ambitious but doesn't create enough of a central drama to sustain its weight. Balian's story is a search for an objective after he loses his wife and commits murder in a rage, and his ponderous self-reflection does not always sit well in the context of massive historical events. It does not help that most of the dialogue is delivered with self-conscious importance, as if the characters knew they were partaking in events that would one day be chronicled in an important movie.

The rather unimaginative cast is adequate without threatening to compete with the grand sets and historical occasions. Orlando Bloom and Eva Green are promoted beyond their abilities to the front of a large production, and are not helped by an ill-defined and truncated romantic sub-plot. Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons and Edward Norton carry better gravitas but are unfortunately confined to smallish roles.

The film reaches a highlight with Saladin's siege of Jerusalem, the outnumbered Balian organizing a clever defence, his objective not so much victory but the carving out of a bargaining opportunity. Scott excels at quite stunning scenes of massive armies on the move, long range and close combat action, and city walls being grimly contested to the death.

Screenwriter William Monahan does not try to disguise the film's noble intentions: the Holy Land has been a place of strife and religiously-motivated slaughter for millennia, and the path of peace can only be plotted by characters like the righteous knight Godfrey, the brave blacksmith Balian, and the benevolent King Baldwin. They have their flaws, but they all look past the individual towards the collective and seek accommodation in search of the greater good. Alas, evil co-exists in plain sight, possessing small minds but great power. The bad guys are embodied by Guy and Raynald, and the religious zealots do enough to topple the fragile peace from its perch and reignite war.

Kingdom Of Heaven is a glossy treatment of a sensitive subject, and ultimately goes out of its way to confirm the obvious: in this part of the world the names, affiliations and weapons will change, but violence in the name of God prevails across generations.

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