GLADIATOR director, Ridley Scott, returns with another historical epic, Kingdom of Heaven. With King Arthur’s failure, the critical mauling of Troy and the disaster of Alexander, the historical epic has been unable to capitalise on Gladiator’s enormous success. This potentially controversial tale about the Crusades may be enough to revive this flagging genre.
Kingdom of Heaven focuses on the run-up to the third Crusade, when western civilisation confronted the Muslim world with swords and cultural arrogance. Probably as good a movie as anyone could make about the period, Scott and writer William Monanhan find honour, romance and spiritual redemption amid the slaughter.
Young French blacksmith, Balian (Orlando Bloom), in the wake of his wife’s tragic suicide, commits a murder. Redemption finds him in the form of his father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), returning from Jerusalem to find his son. Before Godfrey dies, he knights Balian, commissioning him to return to Jerusalem to protect the dying King (Ed Norton) and help establish a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians can peacefully exist.
The King’s sister, Sybilla (Eva Green), is unhappily married to Lusignan, waiting in the wings to take the throne and stirring up trouble with the Arabs in pretext for war. Balian arrives in Jerusalem amidst this political storm, threatening to tip the peacetime scales. After the obligatory affair with Sybilla, Balian must assume control after the King’s death and bring peace to the country.
Bloom may not have impressed in Troy, but here he is a worthy hero. He looks and acts the part of a knight, something many doubted he could do; expectations for him will definitely be high from now on. He’s joined by rising star Eva Green, enigmatic and sultry as Lusignan’s wife Sybilla.
Add to this Neeson as Balian’s father, Norton as King Baldwin, Brendan Gleeson in support, and Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis, British thespians playing wise counsellors in a period drama as only British thespians can – it’s hard to see how Scott can go wrong.
However, the movie is not captivating. The problem may lie with the plot delivery, either utterly confusing or entirely predictable. The casual moviegoer’s head will be spinning, the whirlwind of social and religious politics is impossible to comprehend for anyone who doesn’t have an intricate knowledge of 12th century Middle Eastern social studies. This may have been forgivable if characters were as confused, but they obviously got a briefing on the subject, one the audience sorely needs through narration or at least narrative characters. Therefore, audiences are unaware of the gravity of decisions until it’s too late.
The Battle of Hattin, where the Crusaders are slaughtered by the forces of Muslim leader Saladin and Saladin’s subsequent siege of Jerusalem, is among the best in recent memory for intensity and restraint from exploitative gore. However, there is huge controversial potential, as, according to Scott, it’s the Christian forces that come off the worst. Predictably, it has already upset some people.
Some believe the movie will teach people to hate Muslims, with the stereotypes of them as ‘retarded and backward’, while others think the film panders to Islamic fundamentalism, portraying Muslims as sophisticated and civilised, and Crusaders as brutes and barbarians. Scott can’t win!
All historical epics are similar in theme and structure, any brilliance bubbling under the surface is quashed by a desire to carry out forced dialogue, which does little more than infuriate for two-and-a-half hours; Kingdom is no exception. It won’t disappoint the viewer, but it will never reach the lofty status of Gladiator or Braveheart.
**** If you’re a Bloom fan, get your tickets now; if you’re a history fan, watch the Discovery Channel.