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Kingdom of Heaven Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    Kingdom of Heaven Review
    “Arise, a knight.”

    The knight in question should be none other than Sir Ridley Scott who, once again, has perfectly captured a bygone time and transported his audience into it with all the celebrated ease and authenticity that a filmmaker of his calibre is renowned for. And beyond even his remarkable feat in bringing Kingdom Of Heaven to wild and passionate life, he should also be praised for his ongoing love-affair with DVD, since this new Extended 4-Disc Edition is nothing short of excellence, a package that is as immersive as the world of the Crusades he crafted for the film, itself. Ditch any lingering doubts about double-dipping with this release - the theatrical cut of Kingdom Of Heaven was a badly broken film, but this Extended Director's Cut addresses all of those misgivings about plot leaps and misinterpretations with leisurely, intimate and expertly woven finesse.

    Well ... almost.

    “I am the blacksmith.”

    “And I am the King of England.”

    I feel no need to outline the plot, sufficed to say that it revolves around Orlando Bloom's initially dour blacksmith, Balian, being drawn out from a wasted life in dreary, rural France mourning for his dead wife when the father he never knew, Sir Godfrey of Ibelin, finds him and whisks him off to the Holy Land just in time to take part in a resurgence of the Crusades when dastardly Templars and rogue nobles conspire to wreck the precarious détente that has existed between Christians and Muslims during leprous King Baldwin's reign over Jerusalem. How's that for a one-sentence summation of a three-hour-plus movie, then? Released to fair-to-middling reviews theatrically, the general view held was that Scott's leviathan production was literally only half of the story. What exactly had been going on with Balian and Michael Sheen's nefarious and callous priest? Just how and when did our hero acquire his terrific engineering skills and astute mind for military strategy? And where did he gain his formidable fighting skills? It certainly wasn't from the thirty seconds or so of training that Sir Godfrey and his band of warriors afforded him just before the gory ambush in the woods. And, far more pertinently, the politics and feuding taking place amongst the supposedly good guys in the Holy Land made very little sense, especially when viewed as a vital backdrop and sure cause for Eva Green's sensual and elusive Princess Sibylla to spurn her husband and his ambitions in favour of young upstart Balian. All of these things are rounded out with Scott's original, and much longer version. With roughly forty minutes of extra footage, Kingdom Of Heaven now feels right, the balance more composed and the characters and their schemes given the space to breathe.

    Badly marketed before as an action/adventure movie, Kingdom now assumes its proper role as a sprawling historical epic. The huge Siege of Jerusalem now slots into the narrative as a natural progression of events that no longer appear haphazard or ill-conceived. Where once it dominated the second act of the film, it now sits comfortably and justifiably as the third act's culmination. Critics may harp on about the leisurely pace that benefits the development of some previously sidelined characters, but this would be missing the point. Scott and writer William Monahan want to plunge us deep into this world and its visceral feuding and the plot-enlargement from extended scenes in France, Messina and, obviously the palaces of Jerusalem only add to the intoxicating flavour of a deeply-evoked era. Like Gladiator (my absolute favourite movie, as I keep on saying), Kingdom literally smells real, let alone looks it. Historical authenticity may still harangue some purists - events have been meshed and speeded up - but the stench of realism still permeates much of the film.

    “Your qualities will be known among your enemies before ever you meet them, my friend.”

    A failing that still exists - although it is nothing major - is the storm sequence when the ships are wrecked and Balian is deposited alone amongst the debris on the shore. This event is over far too quickly for the disaster to have any real impact, plus it means that the transition from wintry gloom to sun-baked desert is much too abrupt. But, at least, unlike in the theatrical cut of the film, the scenes immediately preceding it in the port town of Messina, feel weightier and hold more importance, with a little more scene-setting thrown in.

    “It's all right if you don't hear the voice of God ... you can still be a good man.”

    Neeson may still be just the movie-mentor that Hollywood always looks to when an innocent character needs grooming for future heroism, but he certainly provides a reliable background of nobility and honour as Sir Godfrey. His performance, although his stint in the movie is relatively brief, has a grandeur and a pathos that is wholly credible. It's hard to imagine a warrior-cum-father-figure in a movie now that doesn't have Neeson's voice, but, although he rarely smiles, there is a flicker of love and humanity in his eyes that marks him out as a man who has seen enough of fighting and realises that the way forward is through peaceful co-existence in the Holy Land. Finding his long-lost son feels justified for a character that probably understands he has little time left to make amends. Bloom, I have to say, is excellent in the role of Balian. Yes, I know, that sounds more than slightly ridiculous, but I genuinely believe that he carries this movie with conviction and style. I've always liked him as an actor, but I'm also fully aware of his shortcomings. His main problem - and it is one that he shares with Clive Owen - is that he lacks the commanding voice of a man of action, strength, and leadership. Of course, in reality, not all leaders have proud, deep voices ... but, in movies, it does help. Balian's final call to arms, the “Arise a knight,” speech, is considerably less rousing as a result of his feebe vocals. Yet, despite this - and the sometimes comical image of him in his chain-mail hood - there is a surety and a presence to his performance here that is remarkable to witness considering the fluffy light attempts he'd made previously. He may have been a lover not a fighter in Troy, but he still let the film down with a wimpy and chinless turn that dragged the drama into turgidity. But, as Balian, he has the swiftness of Legolas, the headstrong and passionate free-wheeling of Will Turner for sure, yet he balances the temptation for brevity with an earnest and powerful sense of tragedy, righteous honour and an aggression that is marvellous to behold. Check out the depth of emotion that he is able to conjure when remembering his wife, or finding love with Sibylla, or rallying his troops. He accurately portrays a man who, having lost any reason to live, gradually finds a purpose to his existence and a greater cause to fight for. He can and he does carry such moments with grace and devotion. And his fighting skills - well, whether wielding a mighty broadsword against a spear-carrying horseman or smashing a rogue Templar's skull open with a rock - he delivers a vicious onslaught of cinematic savagery that would have made Maximus proud. I love that instance when he stamps a devastating foot down on an attacker's throat. Helm's Deep obviously proved a good training ground for leaping about on battlements, too.

    “Give me a war, Reynald.”

    “That is what I do.”

    Eva Green does a remarkable job, too. Her character of Sibylla, princess of Jerusalem was viciously short-changed in the theatrical cut, but is fleshed-out quite comprehensively in this full version. Now, her transition from alluring and enigmatic seductress to haunted, sacrificial waif is much more pronounced and deeply etched, leaving no element of her once-confusing motivations left swinging in the desert breeze. The heartrending tragedy of her predicament is fully rounded and Scott reveals a very poignant and harrowing subplot involving her son that brings a lot of the political and emotional plight she undergoes into stark relief. Green has an unusual look, but with those eyes and that pout Balian's crusade takes a very justifiable diversion. Her scenes with her dying brother are incredibly moving and that moment when she finally looks upon his wretched face is a brief but breath-snatching instance of intimate agony. Again, Scott's handling of such scenes as this, as well as those depicting her discovery of her son's similar fate, are wonderfully measured and achingly upsetting. Jeremy Irons as the clever and loyal Lord Tiberius, King Baldwin's most faithful man-at-arms, does well in the role of diplomatic foil, parrying the evil schemes of some with the more noble aspirations of a man who can plainly see the writing on the wall, knowing the full implications of such bloodlust tearing the fragile peace apart, and would do anything to stave off the inevitable confrontation between Christian and Muslim.

    New Zealand-raised Marton Csokas supplies much vigour and leering malevolence as Guy De Lusignan, the French aristocrat whose extreme ambitions can only lead to disaster. But the tendency with this role, despite some efforts to have us sympathise with him (a loveless marriage and a wife that fancies his arch-nemesis, Balian), has Guy coming across as just another snarling pantomime baddie. And to compound this sense of dangerous, yet vaguely unsatisfying villainy, is the presence of the ubiquitous Brendan Gleeson as the bloodthirsty, war-mongering Reynald of Chatillon. A veteran of many period pieces, including Braveheart, Gangs Of New York and Troy (actually going to blade to blade with Bloom in his simpering and cowardly days), Gleeson is, indeed, a raging powerhouse of lunacy, playing the incendiary that Guy needs to ignite in order to start the conflict he believes will assure himself of power. But, as a double-act, the pair simper, preen, plot and whisper without much historical weight. They did exist in reality and, in fact, had much deeper depravity than is depicted here. Their use of the Templars to provoke Saladin's insurrection - nasty hit and run raids on defenceless Muslim caravans etc - actually happened, but the film still seems to struggle to condense a lot of incident into what feels like a very short narrative time-span. And, as a result, both Guy and Reynald come across more as mere devices in a script that has still has to go some way to dot all the i's and cross all the t's to make sense of all the intrigue. So, Monahan's screenplay can still appear to be somewhat muddled. Gleeson's camply volatile Reynald, in particular, is just a big, crusty-bearded patsy, whose real-life motivations have been largely squandered in favour of rather more erratic, and even faintly ludicrous, character traits. His prancing around the prison cell - “The King is in Heaven?” scene - is especially belittling of a man who had vicious designs on Mecca, itself.

    “I ... I put it delicately. She was a suicide, she is in Hell. Though what she does there without a head ...?”

    Better value, by far, is the venerated Syrian stage and screen actor Ghasson Massoud as the great Sultan Saladin. His performance is utterly magnificent. With cold, penetrating eyes and a deadly serious expression he can instil total fear, yet when he smiles, or trembles at the horror of a mass grave for the bodies of his fallen Saracens, he opens up Saladin to reveal a depth that dialogue, alone, could not reach. He may exude pure, undiluted menace in some sequences, but Massoud ensures that Saladin is just as sensitive and committed to averting bloodshed as the squatters living behind the walls of Jerusalem. And David Thewlis, as the un-named Hospitaler - the fighting priest who advises Balian in the spiritual ethics of God-fearing conquest - carries his character with a staunch dedication to his faith and his cause, but couples it with an attitude of realism and pragmatism. It is this innate humanity that makes his ultimate sacrifice at once terrible and cathartic. And then there is Edward Norton who, as the blighted King Baldwin, emotes with painful nobility some strangely soothing philosophies from behind his expressionless mask. Try as I might, though, I couldn't stop thinking of the Doctor Who And The Robots Of Death whenever he was on screen. But he attains a dishevelled dignity that keeps him slightly fantastical in an ensemble that is actually quite some line-up of different styles and etiquettes. Also, be on the lookout for some other familiar faces, such as Philip Glenister, Kevin (Rome/Dog Soldiers) McKidd and Coronation Street's own eco-warrior Spider Nugent, aka Martin Hancock, as the gravedigger-turned-crusader.

    “Whoever dies here today, you will certainly be among them.”

    The action is compelling and brutal, the Black Hawk Down sense of hurling the audience in amongst the carnage is still very much in evidence as Scott stages hack 'n' slash melees with limited numbers of combatants and then turns on the adrenaline with blistering all-out warfare between vast armies. The destruction of the siege towers ranks alongside the similar storming of Minas Tirith in The Return Of The King as one of modern cinema's most memorable big-scale set-pieces. The many swooping aerial shots of colossal battles, marching armies and fabulous gliding overhead views of Jerusalem are beautifully and intricately detailed, and so much better than Peter Jackson's very similarly CG-enhanced shots. The overhead tracking shot of Balian leading a cavalry charge against supremely overwhelming odds out on the dust-whipped plains during the Battle of Kerak is a breathtaking vision. The destruction of the Christopher Gate is a pulverising joy for war-junkies everywhere, ripping the retina with scorching missiles and then the massed struggling of blood-hungry warriors, exactingly presented with immaculate CG and impeccable framing. The hand-to-hand and toe-to-toe combat is staggeringly vicious at times, though, as with Gladiator, Scott still seems determined to avoid wallowing in gratuitous violence, never lingering on the gougings or severings, except for a couple of well-deserved examples. That said, there is a lot more spurting blood, skull-splittings and head-hackings in this version of the movie. Which is nice.

    “I swear to God that to take this city will be the end of you.”

    Which is more holy - Christianity or Islam? Who has the right to claim Jerusalem? These are but two of the strong issues that Scott and Monahan could not skirt around, given the volatile nature of the subject matter. Yet, perhaps inevitably, such political and religious conflicts are watered-down in earnest, the multiple viewpoints of a still-troubled modern world too wild and dangerous so navigate with something so simple as a movie. The raging turmoil that both faiths carry still blisters and burns even today and, as a result, Monahan's screenplay is at great pains to portray the good and the bad of both sides. In fact, Saladin's Saracen army is probably painted in the greater light and Saladin, himself, is certainly no monster or vengeful aggressor like, say, Guy or Reynald, whose modern-day equivalents can be seen virtually everywhere, from pubs to politics. He is a fully-rounded character with as much depth and sensitivity to followers of other faiths as Balian. This was a wise move, and one that is keenly felt. The final battle, though, becomes a very perplexing one because of this. With no real clear enemy, both armies and both creeds have legitimate claim to the Kingdom Of Heaven, and are both, therefore, wholly justified in fighting to the death for it. Yet both would just as equally avoid bloodshed, mindful of the others' sacred beliefs. It is interesting to note, however, that the real struggle for Jerusalem by the people that the film depicts, would not have been so strangely tolerant.

    “You go to certain death.”

    “All death is certain.”

    Despite having two pivotal scenes accompanied by music from other films - notably Hans Zimmer's score for Scott's own Hannibal and Jerry Goldsmith's wonderful Halls Of Valhalla cue from the atmospheric and underrated The 13th Warrior - Harry Gregson-Williams' score for Kingdom Of Heaven is rich and varied, heroic and ethnic. Hailing from Zimmer's Media Ventures Group, Gregson-Williams uses vast choral voices to majestic effect and pounding percussion to pulverise the senses during the battle scenes. His music for the Battle Of Kerak sequence is a standout, but his signature theme for Balian and his odyssey is highly memorable, too. He effortlessly combines the kinetics of the action sequences with the more moving elegies of various characters' plights. One of last year's better scores, in my opinion.

    So, all in all, Kingdom Of Heaven is an awesome slice of heroism, drama and adventure set against a backdrop that is so under-used by Hollywood, yet so open to epic re-tellings. There is much to savour with this Extended Edition, and it is certainly a film that demands repeat viewing. A nice touch is the inclusion of a musical Overture and Entr'acte .... just like in the huge-scale epics of old. Ridley Scott proves, yet again, that his cinematic flair for world-creation is second to none. Top stuff, folks.