Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, David Thewlis, Marton Csokas, Ghassan Massoud, Brendan Gleeson, Alexander Siddig, Velibor Topic and Edward Norton
Plot: A blacksmith (Bloom) mourning the death of his wife and unborn child is visited by his father (Neeson) who enlists him on a holy crusade to Jerusalem.
There are very few directors who could make this movie. While on the surface, it is a variation of the “swords n shields” brand of entertainment popular of the era. King Arthur, Troy, even Lord of the Rings may have influenced the creation of this historical epic. But it is also so much more important than an entertaining war film. This is a movie that bleeds the dirty history of religion, when supporting God wasn’t just about a moral code, but bloody murder by the thousands. There is this fascinating sensation of watching this movie and feeling like you are walking on eggshells. The secret weapon of this movie is the fact that the rivalry between religions, between Christianity and Muslims, is just as powerful now, as when the 12th Century Crusade took place.
As with all films with such weighty material, it is likely to prove a touch too heavy for some. Scott focuses on the pointlessness of certain actions. Your favourite character is likely to get offed by some naïve decision made out of their control. Ridley Scott’s cinematography casts unrelenting images of corpse-filled battlefields. He pays key detail to the fact it is the common folk who suffer. As Christian priests rile up religious crowds into committing foul crimes, note how they are also the first to suggest abandoning the townsfolk, when the Saladins move in. There are long stretches of Kingdom of Heaven, where it becomes less entertaining and more thought-provoking drama. The middle section of this movie is a tough watch, as the battles fade into distant events and we are left with the political struggles between an upcoming, war-mongering heir and a kindly, yet weak King. People are much more likely to talk about the bloody beginnings and the showy finale. It opens with Orlando Bloom’s smouldering protagonist, seemingly mandatory for this sort of film, leaving his meagre life behind to march to Jerusalem with the father he never knew he had. If the fun quest angle to the Holy Land is annoyingly short, focus more on having fun with the token time spent with it. A skirmish in the forests packs bite that films rarely open with and Liam Neeson provides some amazing scenes, the kind of role that you wish the actor would return to, when he has finished having fun playing the action hero of Hollywood. And the finale is the remainder of the movie when the political struggles of religion have faded away. The religious fanatics have risen against the Muslims, failed and now Orlando Bloom is left defending the honour of his belief. Scott channels the kind of visual spectacle that makes these movies so pleasing, mass arrays of armies (siege towers, cavalry), filling the screen and marching on helpless good guys. It is a deserving finish for such a demanding film and on a second watch, is likely to be the scene you jump to. It helps that the villain of the piece isn’t really a villain at all. Ghassan Massoud is wonderful as the Saracen King, the weight of the war resting on his shoulders and a sight friendlier than the Christian conqueror, Marton Csokas. It adds emotional weight to the shots of extras being hacked at, burned and blown to smithereens that gives Kingdom of Heaven the advantage of being more than another historical war film.
And even when we are trapped in the heavy middle section of the film, Scott surrounds the viewer in amazing performances. True, Orlando Bloom probably emerges the weak player in the film, his lead protagonist drifting through the story and picking up talents for war tactics, swordsmanship and engineering, whenever the movie demands it. Yet perhaps he is what the movie needs, a heroic charmer who is just bland enough that we can squint and see ourselves, or any average joe, being capable of standing up and doing great things for the good of the people. Besides, even if Bloom’s skills as an actor are lacking here, it doesn’t hurt the film, simply because Kingdom of Heaven harnesses an outstanding supporting cast. The movie barrels along at such a quick pace, large actors are able to pop into the set to deliver some powerful lines and then leave. The likes of Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis are essential to the strength of the film, able to lend their natural charisma to deliver warm-hearted monologues. Brendan Gleeson has a few great scenes as a bloodthirsty Lord, convinced he has to play the bad guy for the good of Christianity. Characters like his give you cause to shake your head at the futility of religious wars. Kingdom of Heaven is also one of those great movies where you get to keep an eye out for great actors in tiny parts. Michael Sheen plays a petty priest. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau cameos as a Sheriff on the hunt for Bloom. Perhaps the best actor of the bunch is the one who didn’t even take a credit. Edward Norton plays the Leper King, who comes the closest to keeping the peace, but he is trapped in a body far too weak to maintain it. Yet perhaps he is the strongest character in the whole film. These astonishingly strong actors are the reason that even the bloated second act isn’t as bad as it should be. Yes, it takes its time, but when you get scenes as strong as Eva Green saying goodbye to her brother, surely a few padded moments are a worthy price to pay.
Final Verdict: Heavy material, yet an essential watch. Both a historical treat and a religious debate that echoes in modern times.