Title: Kingdom of Heaven
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: William Monahan
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Liam Neeson
Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is the consummate battle epic — grand, bold, direct and powerful. It is a fiercely moral film, uncompromising in its view of goodness and right, unafraid of offending a large contingent of the audience. Here is a movie that takes sides; a movie that has a point and goes about making it with exacting precision. Scott and his screenwriter, William Monahan, leave themselves vulnerable to accusations of “preaching” and “speechifying,” but the film renders such complaints irrelevant with eloquence and power. If we must have “message movies,” let them all be crafted this well.
I would not have much use for Kingdom of Heaven if it began and ended with its message. Fortunately, it also has what last year’s troika of historical and pseudo-historical epics did not: strong characters, impressive production values, and thematic consistency. Scott is nothing if not in his element here; his resume, after all, includes Gladiator, not to mention the earth-shatteringly brilliant Black Hawk Down, and he gets more mileage out of the sight of enormous, clashing armies — a sight no longer inherently impressive after The Lord of the Rings, Troy, etc.
But what assists Scott not only in the action scenes but throughout the entire film is his masterful sense of scale — physical, historical, emotional. He eternally stays on the correct side of the line between the grandiose and the pompous, the forceful and the pushy, the big and the bloated. When characters in movies make speeches and the soundtrack swells, my usual instinct is to immediately resist, scoff, put up cynical defenses; not here. Scott convinced me to take this movie at face value, to let myself get swept up in the story and question nothing. He is one hell of a salesman.
Similarly convincing is Orlando Bloom, who has adopted swashbucking as his calling card. He is different here, though, not aggressively prissy as he was in Pirates of the Caribbean, or self-consciously Elven like in The Lord of the Rings; he broods a lot, makes the most of the screenplay’s quiet moments, and actually manages to turn his character’s moral rectitude into something compelling and human. A lesser performance would have turned Balian, the blacksmith who fights for Jerusalem, into someone superhuman, impossible, unreachable; Bloom simply makes him into a good, courageous man.
There is a bevy of supporting characters, most played by well-known actors. Not all get their due in terms of screentime — word has it almost an hour of extra footage will show up on the DVD release — but we see enough to get the sense that there is more going on in this medieval universe than has made it to the screen. At the same time they, too, are walking grand gestures; the Leper King is as eerily mysterious as humanly possible (have fun guessing the name of the actor who plays him), and Brendan Gleeson’s brutal Reynald is terrifying with his red beard and utterly maniacal demeanor.
More than anything, though, I was drawn in by the film’s uncompromising, intense moral formulation: the simple but powerful notion that goodness and morality stand outside any religious framework. I suppose that considering the historical context this is somewhat obvious as “messages” go, but it’s kind of brave too, when you think about it, given what seems to be the current mindset across most of the country. Monahan and Scott insult no religions — the early buzz about the film being insulting to Muslims is a complete crock — but nor do they back off from the implications of the fanaticism and opportunism that religion often breeds.
The film is not subtle. It states and restates its point at every opportunity, crafting speeches around it, pitting cowardly priests and awful Catholic aristocrats against the goodwill of the protagonist and the eminent reasonableness of the Muslim leader. It has no qualms about taking sides, being accused of bias, or tweaking history for the sake of impact. It could have been a travesty. But it tells a good story, elegantly and passionately; tells it with gravitas, force, and disarming frankness. Scott has not told a history lesson with Kingdom of Heaven, but he has made an uncommonly powerful film.