Despite the obvious pedigree behind the camera and some impressively staged battle scenes, Ridley Scott’s latest epic lacks the human drama and visual invention of his previous work.
The critical and commercial success of Gladiator in 2000 kick started the recent revival of ‘sword and sandal’ epics. Now things come full circle with the same director helming the latest in the genre, an epic tale of a blacksmith who is drawn into the Crusades and the battle for Jerusalem in the 12th century. To make a large scale film about Christians invading the Middle East might seem a provocative move given current world events, but in truth the film is a fairly routine example of the epic genre. Like Gladiator we see a mournful protagonist drawn into a wider conflict in which he emerges a heroic warrior. But unlike that film Kingdom of Heaven tries to encompass so many points of view that it ends up being a diluted and underwhelming experience.
The film opens with a recently widowed blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) receiving a visit from the famous Knight, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father and encourages his son to join him in the Holy Land. Initially reluctant Balian joins him in returning to the Holy City. When he gets there he finds a fragile peace existing between the Christian King, Baldwin IV (an uncredited Ed Norton – performing entirely behind a mask) and the Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). However, Baldwin’s vision of peace – a “kingdom of heaven” – is soon to come under threat from the war mongers wishing to succeed him, the power hungry Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson).
Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a bad film in the strictest sense but given the talent involved and the scale of the production, it has to rank as a significant disappointment. Thematically the script doesn’t convince as it explores the intolerance and religious differences in the Middle Ages. Although the Muslim characters such as Saladin are portrayed with a deal of sensitivity, the story often comes across as an airbrushed version of the Crusades in order to function as some kind of parable for the current wars waged in the Middle East. The struggle to set aside the ethnic hatred is embodied in the character of Bailian, but he lacks stature and the choice of Orlando Bloom to play him was misguided to say the least. Although he impressed in the Lord of the Rings trilogy he doesn’t yet have the charisma or gravitas to grapple with a role like this.
As you might expect, the film is impressive on a technical level. The production design is first rate and the battle scenes are meticulously re-created. But despite some impressive shots this is not in the same league as Scott’s best work and at two and a half hours the film is a heavy slog as it lumbers from one set piece to the next. Despite the pedigree behind the camera and this big budget epic falls down through its one-note characters and unimaginative and naďve attempts to grapple with a dark chapter of human history.
> Official Site
> IMDB Link
> Wikipedia on The Crusades
> A slighty hysterical article from the Telegraph on the controversy surrounding the script.
> Film Force with an overview of Ridley Scott’s career