It’s easy to imagine the memo circulating through Hollywood in the wake of movies like “Gladiator” and “Lord of the Rings”: “If it doesn’t have snazzy costumes and at least three CGI battles, it doesn’t run. Oh, and a love story. Chicks dig the love stories.” Witness the resulting deluge of period epics that seem to be declining in quality almost as quickly as they’re plunging in profits.
Director Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) returns to the forum with “Kingdom of Heaven,” and though he’s crafted a fine epic, it lacks novelty at this point. Audiences may appreciate its political relevance; they may approve of its well-orchestrated battle sequences. They may even admire the sure-handed direction, but they won’t be thrilled — they’ve seen this all before.
The story is set during the Crusades, when Christian forces held Jerusalem under the rule of the benevolent King Baldwin IV. Baldwin strives for peace with the Muslims and practices an early form of religious tolerance, much to the chagrin of the fanatical Knights of Templar, who have papal sanction to slaughter the “infidels.” The film is extensively well researched, but Scott clearly cut much of the historical maneuvering in favor of moody close-ups and sweeping landscape shots, so audiences shouldn’t expect much of a history lesson.
However, “Kingdom of Heaven” deviates radically from history when it comes to the central character. In reality, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom, “Troy”) was a knight of Jerusalem who surrendered the city to the forces of the great Muslim commander, Saladin (magnificently played by Ghassan Massoud) after all the other knights were killed in an ill-calculated assault on Saladin’s army. But in the movie, Balian gains favor with the dying king, romances the new queen and has the foresight not to go on the suicide attack, eventually bargaining with Saladin for much better terms than he received in real life.
These amendments are not significant problems; they make the story better. What becomes problematic is that Balian’s story, fudged as it is, still isn’t particularly interesting. Balian is on a philosophic quest to make peace with his god — not exactly movie material. Although very few big-budget period dramas (“Gladiator” included) have successfully tempered action sequences with intimate personal drama, “Kingdom of Heaven” could have avoided becoming the latest CGI battle monstrosity by stirring audience emotion. Ultimately, that proves to be beyond the scope of the film.
Above all else, “Kingdom of Heaven” is stunning to behold. The cinematography is awe-inspiring, and Scott is still a master behind the camera. And, of course, Bloom’s sweaty, sword-slinging hero looks fine on display as well. He isn’t Russell Crowe, but he knows it, wisely playing his character with quietness and effective nuance rather than simmering intensity. Bloom’s speeches are tepid but short, and his contemplative scenes show an unexpected gravitas. Even better are Jeremy Irons (“Being Julia”) and David Thewlis (“Timeline”), who conjure magnificent performances from minor parts.
But Scott’s film is foremost a statement of political relevance. It’s an impassioned, eloquent meditation on intolerance and religious fundamentalism. “Kingdom of Heaven” is a knowingly ironic title, given the bloodshed and hatred that has occurred — and continues to occur — in the region. Scott reminds us that Christians as well as Muslims are capable of acts of terrorism and acts of religious intolerance. When Balian threatens to burn Jerusalem, Saladin smiles sadly and replies with the foresight of centuries: “Perhaps it would be better.”
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars