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Within the first fifteen minutes of Ridley Scott's new
epic, Kingdom of Heaven, there's a beheading and a burning-alive. Shortly
thereafter, there's a rousing, small-scale forest battle in which swords, bows-and-arrows,
crossbows and knives all come into play. Scott knows how to grab your attention from the
start and he holds firmly on to it for the over two hour running time of the film.
The hero, a blacksmith named Balian (a pumped-up Orlando Bloom), is the bastard son of Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a nobleman Crusader. Godfrey acknowledges his son and tells him of the great opportunities that lie in Jerusalem, far from the depressed conditions in Europe at the time. At Messina, port of embarkation for the holy land, Godfrey knights Balian, his successor as he dies from wounds suffered in battle. (It's a shame to kill off such a fine actor so early in the film, but c'est la guerre.)
Jerusalem is ruled by King Baldwin (Edward Norton), a leper who, against Papal orthodoxy, has made both Christians and Muslims welcome and sustained an uneasy peace. His ally is the Marshall of the city, Tiberius (Jeremy Irons with a furrowed scar running from eye to chin). The King's sister, the beauteous Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), is married to the boorish Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) who is in league with Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), leader of the Templars, an extremist bent on warring on Muslims. The Muslims are led by the legendary Kurd, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), portrayed here as tough, but reasonable, and under pressure himself from extremists within the Muslim ranks.
Of course, there has already been public outcry about misrepresentation of the Muslims in the film. 20th Century Fox publicists are undoubtedly delighted. When Templars are hung in Jerusalem for attacking Muslims, the Marshall points out that they were executed for doing what the Pope told them to do, but that Christ wouldn't. Doubtlessly, Catholic protests will arise, then, as well. If anyone is entitled to be complaining, it's the French, since the only really bad guys are de Lusignan and Reynald.
Balian, seeking salvation for his own perceived sins and inspired by his late father's moral teachings, becomes a model citizen, a skilled leader, and the lover of Sibylla. The screenplay by William Monahan is fine in many ways--vigorous narrative drive, clear storytelling, thoughtful consideration of the political complexities. Its principal fault, exemplified strongly in the central character of Balian, is an unwavering earnestness. Sibylla is the only character who displays even a shred of irony; the others are 100% straight-ahead determination, none more so than the hero. There's not even a hint of comic relief.
Despite these weaknesses, Kingdom of Heaven emerges an entertaining film. It's beautiful to look at--stunningly photographed, set and costumed. It has grandeur that evokes De Mille with the occasional touches of Lucas and Spielberg. The battle scenes make it clear that Scott knows his predecessors--from the slow motion blood spattering of Sam Peckinpah to the wonderful massing of equestrian troops with banners that Kurosawa made his own. In one scene, the camera rises above the chaos of the battlefield, the sound of the conflict fades, and soft and sad music wells on the soundtrack as the carnage continues below; it's an homage to Kurosawa's masterpiece, Ran.
Kingdom of Heaven is no Ran, but it is a highly respectable also-ran.
- Arthur Lazere