Shiny Shelf

Kingdom of Heaven

By Stephen Lavington on 06 October 2005

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

‘Gladiator’ was a phenomenon: a fortunate confluence of star, director and genre that had the added benefit of being a half good movie. As subsequent flops ‘Troy’ and ‘Alexander’ have shown, this is not an easy formula to duplicate and the success of ‘Lord of the Rings’ has made this all the more difficult, adding the yardstick of slickly shot fantasy, hard for more conventional historical epic to measure up to.

This makes it all the more surprising that ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was developed at all, for the story at its heart is nowhere near as stirring as ‘Alexander’ or ‘Troy’ (let alone ‘Gladiator’) because ultimately this story is about a crushing defeat.

It follows a young blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom, the least convincing blacksmith in cinema history – cf ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) as he accompanies his liege lord Sir Godfrey (Liam Neeson) to the defence of the Christian Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem against the forces of Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). Along the way he encounters the saintly leper-king Baldwin (Edward Norton), his sister Sibylla (Eva Green) the Machiavellian Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and the boo-hiss evil villain Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). There’s little point in relating the plot in detail, as all events in the middle act of the film are padding, filling time until the inevitable collapse of the city to the Islamic army.

There are attempts to develop wider themes of loyalty, honour, being-true-to-yourself (oh dear) and tolerance but they never really work out, partly due to the insipidness of Bloom and partly due to context. Without getting bogged down, this is the most historically deceitful film since ‘Braveheart’. Rumour has it that the film was substantially tinkered with to appeal to the vast evangelical audience revealed by Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion of the Christ’. One effect of this is to sand down the edges of history – basically, the only reason Muslim and Christian can’t just get along is the work of an evil minority of Knights Templar led by the devilish de Lusignan. Hmmm.

It’s a shame that the filmmakers spent so much time rewriting history that they didn’t have time to write a half-decent script. The tosh spouted here is ripe with anachronism and feel-good Hollywood-isms and tedious in the extreme, dragging out every one of the film’s 145 minutes. Ridley Scott coasts through on autopilot, summoning the energy for a couple of striking set-pieces but content to let the film trundle on. And on. And on.

It’s customary to find some mitigating factors in a situation like this, but that’s quite a challenge. Edward Norton delivers a pretty good performance and some of the incidental music is fantastic (though it should be pointed out that the tune in question – Vide Cor Meum – has come straight from Scott’s ‘Hannibal’). Like ‘Alexander’, however, it seems that the most good done by this movie was in providing some work for the Moroccan army, who make up many of the extras.

What an ugly mess. Bad enough that Fox thought the post ‘Gladiator’/‘Lord of the Rings’/‘Troy’/‘Alexander’ world needed another swords-and-sandals epic. That this ‘epic’ should then turn out to be built around a resounding defeat, cynically targeted at the evangelical American audience, headed by a “lead” of startling inadequacy and serviced by such a tired and clichéd script adds insult to injury, and leaves a dull, plodding travesty for the unfortunate viewer.

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By Stephen Lavington

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