When I first saw the previews of Kingdom of Heaven, having not heard of the film before that, my first reaction was, “Wow, somebody’s seen Gladiator a few too many times.” Much about the scenes in the trailer seemed like a conscious attempt to ape Ridley Scott‘s sword-and-sandals epic. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the trailer that I realized this was also a Ridley Scott film.
Kingdom of Heaven does sometime look and feel like a blown-up version of the already epic 2000 Best Picture winner. Stylistic cues, setting and cinematography all seem to be carried over from the earlier film. Still, a director borrowing from himself doesn’t make this a good or a bad film.
What makes Kingdom of Heaven so disappointing is that, amongst all the spectacle and historical detail, they forgot to tell the human story of the characters. Most of people in this film are a collection of speeches and grand moments with the humanity of the characters left on the cutting room floor. One suspects, or at least hopes, that the rumored director’s cut, which would take the film to more than three hours, would restore the moments that would breathe life into these characters. This film is beautifully produced. Hopefully they can assemble a version that lives up to the images on the screen.
The biggest problem lies at the heart of Balain (Orlando Bloom), the blacksmith who learns he is the illegitimate son of the local baron, Godfrey of Ibelin, played by Liam Neeson in another one of his patented “mentor to a young knight” roles. First a Jedi Knight, then the Dark Knight and now a real one. Balian never amounts to more than a series of doleful stares and heroics. Bloom rarely speaks during the first half-hour and Balian is not a vivid enough character to work as a strong silent type.
After his father dies, Balian travels to Jerusalem to take his place serving the Christian king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV. Balian has little choice, since he killed the priest who was taunting him about his wife being in hell after her suicide.
The king, played by Edward Norton in a voice that reminded me of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, is dying of leprosy and hides behind an elaborate silver mask. With the aid of the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), he has forged a peace with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), leader of the Muslims, but this peace is on shaky ground. A new breed of Christian zealots from Europe has no patience for peace with the “infidels.” One of these zealots, Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas), is married to the king’s beautiful (and implausibly modern) sister, Sibylla (Eva Green), making him next in line for the throne. He also has no patience for the young blacksmith who is now the Baron of Ibelin, although his wife is more, well, generous with her favors.
When the king finally dies, enabling Guy to lead a foolhardy attack on Saladin, the crushing defeat of the Christian armies leaves Balian to defend Jerusalem against Saladin’s overwhelming army with a handful of soldiers. The final siege, even without Orlando Bloom present, plays like a larger version of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. It’s probably not a good idea when doing a historical epic to remind your audience so vividly of a superior fantasy film.
I sincerely hope that, buried in all the deleted footage that should make it into the director’s cut DVD next year, there is a better film waiting to be seen. This film feels truncated at two-and-a-half hours. Perhaps at three hours, it can be the epic that Ridley Scott set out to make.