2004 was a complete disaster for the medieval period epic. Troy, King Arthur, and Alexander all fell flat (both critically and commercially),
one more spectacularly than the one before it.
With Kingdom of Heaven, director Ridley Scott, who could be considered one of the masters among modern epics (Gladiator, Black Hawk
Down), returns to rejuvenate the genre.
Our hero this time is Balian, played by Orlando Bloom, once again portraying a blacksmith. He is soon paid a visit by his father, Godfrey
(Liam Neeson). Unbeknownst to Balian, Godfrey is the Baron of Ibelin and with his life near its end, wishes to leave this land to Balian.
However, the main focus of the story is on Jerusalem. There are two factions of the Christians in control of Jerusalem: the ones who want
to fight the Muslims and the ones who simply want to protect the kingdom.
If it seems like I'm having a hard time describing the plot, it's because I am. The film spends too much time setting up and sorting out the
various politics of Jerusalem and in the end, they are still somewhat hazy to the audience. This is Kingdom of Heaven's biggest failing. The
delicate political situations come at the expense of the character development. We like Balian, but not as we loved Maximus in Gladiator.
Partly to blame is the miscasting of Orlando Bloom. He just doesn't have the appearance or the intensity to carry the weight of this film. It's
not a bad performance by any stretch, but it needed a stronger lead.
Luckily much of the supporting characters are excellent, notably Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Ghassan Massoud, and David Thewlis.
When the film does get around to the inevitable battle scenes, they are very well done. Special effects blend seamlessly with real elements
creating a spectacular visual experience. This is true of the entire film. Scott is in great debt to cinematographer John Mathieson. However,
as he did in Gladiator, Scott has a nasty habit of overdirecting close quarters combat. The combination of slow and fast motion is distracting
and unnecessary, but fortunately it is used to a lesser extent than some of his previous films.
For lack of a better word, Kingdom of Heaven is somewhat inconsistent. There were times when I loved this movie and times when I was
disappointed by it. That said, it is a better film than all of last year's medieval flops, although certainly not in the league of Gladiator or
Braveheart. But, there are some truly excellent moments (emotionally and physically) when Balian is defending Jerusalem in the climactic
battle, which is fantastically realized.
The movie also gets a huge boost from Harry Gregson-Williams' Oscar worthy score.
Although it may not be remembered among the titans of the genre, Kingdom of Heaven is a good film, despite its many flaws and is
recommended for those possessing a slight bit of patience.
* * *
(out of four)
The Director's Cut:
Perhaps Ridley Scott should have been a bit more stubborn when Fox asked him to cut out 45 minutes from the film to make it more
Receiving a very limited theatrical run and eventually landing on DVD for all to see, Scott's preferred version of Kingdom of Heaven is a
masterpiece that corrects many, if not all of the shortcomings of the theatrical release. The politics are better explained, and more
importantly, character motivations are fully established.
From beginning to end, the new footage is essential and beneficial.
Consider this a cautionary tale in studio manipulation and the power of editing. The film performed poorly at the box office despite the
post-production nonsense and what could have been a serious award contender was reduced to a Gladiator wannabe.
Kingdom of Heaven proves to be much more impressive than that film on a number of levels. The battle sequences are superbly
choreographed and the social commentary on religion is powerful without ever becoming preachy.
The film also gains more of an emotional impact from the new footage. There is a great scene in the theatrical version where Balian knights
a crowd of commoners to show the folly of nobility. Here we realize that among them is the gravedigger from the very first scene of the
film. It's a phenomenal scene made even better and it reminds us of just how far we, and this character, have come.
The film is so greatly improved that it is actually upsetting that it will never receive the praise it deserved.
Thankfully for Scott and for us, we get to see the film the way it was intended, and it's an epic success.
* * * *
(out of four)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: William Monahan
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons,
David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Martin Csokas, Liam
Cinematography by: John Mathieson
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams
Released: May 6, 2005; 145 Minutes