Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kingdom of Heaven

Spoiler alert, about 100 years after European Crusaders took Jerusalem, the Muslims re-took it. In Kingdom of Heaven (2005), shortly after Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) surrenders control of Jerusalem to Saladin, he asks the Sultan (Ghassan Massoud) what the city is worth.

"Nothing," Saladin says. "Everything."

Kingdom of Heaven is director Ridley Scott's historical epic about this clash between Christians and Muslims over Jerusalem, and while it has its fair share of majestic images and screen-filling armies battling it out, the movie is more about the individuals at the center of the struggle, the knights, generals, and noblemen (and woman) who plot, calculate, negotiate, and politick toward their goals in the Holy Land. At more than three hours in length (the director's cut), the movie is ambitious in scope and story, exploring the dynamics of a religious conflict that even today has not subsided.

Balian (Bloom) is a French blacksmith mourning his dead wife and child when he's approached by the father he never knew, Baron Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a nobleman back from the Crusades. Godfrey offers to take Balian to Jerusalem, telling him the land holds great promise for an enterprising young man. Balian refuses at first but joins the expedition after killing his half-brother (Michael Sheen), a priest, who desecrated his wife's body because she committed suicide. The party journeys to the Holy Land, but Godfrey does not survive the trip. Before his death, he knights Balian and appoints him his successor.

Balian reaches Jerusalem, where he allies with its king Baldwin (Edward Norton), who is dying of leprosy, and Baldwin's adviser Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). He also makes an enemy of Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who is angling for the throne and married to Baldwin's sister Sibylla (Eva Green). She and Balian fall in love. Guy has the backing of the Knights Templar and its leader Reynald de Chatillon (Brendon Gleason), and they grow increasingly aggressive and violent toward Muslims, trying to provoke a war. Baldwin and the Saracen leader Saladin (Massoud) have an uneasy truce, but Saladin also seeks to conquer Jerusalem for Islam.

Scott has assembled a very strong cast for the movie. Everyone looks and feels like they belong in the period (aided by excellent costumes and local design). The best performance in the movie is by Edward Norton, uncredited and unseen beneath a silver mask. As the dying Baldwin, the Leper King of Jerusalem, he plays an honorable and just ruler trying to ensure the safety of his people and kingdom. Even as his own body crumbles, he marshals all his efforts toward keeping the peace from following suit.

What really makes the drama is the players on both sides are complex. Except for Guy and Reynauld, there are no villains. Jerusalem is valued by people of all faiths in the movie, and if only they could learn to co-exist, the region could find peace.

The action scenes are where the movie falters. While not outright bad, Scott relies on shaky-cam, slow-mo too often, and for the most part, they are more distracting than thrilling. The siege of Jerusalem, with catapults launching hundreds of fiery payloads, is impressive, but I preferred the slower, character moments.

Fortunately, Scott works in some excellent images and awe-inspiring shots. The cinematography shows us the harshness of the desert, the impressive size of armies and knights marching off to fight, and the bustling activity of the city in all its exotic wonder. This film really creates a sense what it felt like to be alive during its setting.

Kingdom of Heaven is not a film to watch for its historical accuracy. A number of details and facts are altered or removed for dramatic convenience. Still, as a historical capsule of the time, with a story built on character dynamics and politics and aided by an amazing visual style, it is a compelling watch.

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