Kingdom of Heaven

We’ve just been to see Kingdom of Heaven, which I have to say I hugely enjoyed. So much so that I’ve gone on for much longer than I intended!

The story concerns a young Blacksmith (Orlando Bloom – Hollywood’s blacksmith of choice) who is mentored by a Knight (Liam Neeson – Hollywood’s mentor of choice) and fights in the Crusades in the Holy Land during the 12th Century.

In terms of movie genres this is a film which has at least eight toes planted firmly in the realm of the historical epic, although thankfully it’s more reminiscent of Gladiator than Troy, and a million miles away from King Arthur. Although it shares all the faults of its genre – impossibly noble good guys, impossibly sneery bad guys and a plot which liberally stretches history in order to include the foregoing characters – it is in fact an extremely enjoyable, unusually thoughtful film. In amongst the skilfully deployed clichés, it has a lot of worthwhile things to say about intolerance and the evils which are perpetrated in the name of religion.

Right from the outset it’s clear that this is a Ridley Scott movie. Even if the countless motes of snow drifting thickly through the air weren’t enough of a tip off, the start of the movie showcases all of Scott’s strengths in establishing real places and people, rich with dirt and grime. The world of this film has a dirtied-down texture you can almost reach out and touch, and yet it is never less than breathtakingly beautiful. I’d be guilty of indulging in the cult of the Director if I didn’t also credit the role of William Monahan’s script in establishing the film’s sparse tone from the start. Even when the focus turns to familiar heroism and villainy, the attention to small and grimy detail never falters. Jerry Bruckheimer please take note.

I’d read criticism that Orlando Bloom’s shoulders were too slight to carry the weight of this film, but I think he does a fine job. The script explicitly calls for a young man who is coming into his own, and Bloom fits the bill, giving a restrained and measured performance which feels surprisingly subtle, and doesn’t rely on the broad-brush mannerisms of LOTR or Pirates of the Carribbean. Neeson is also excellent. He’s an actor I sometimes find a little dry and intellectual, but his performance here is easily more nuanced than his turn in Schindler’s List. Like all the characters he benefits from Scott’s dirtied-down approach. The other performances are generally excellent. The villains are cast from the familiar black-and-white mould of Braveheart and Gladiator, but the actors acquit themselves well, and Saladin himself (not a true villain in the film), played by Ghassan Massoud, is a tower of granite-faced nobility. Likewise Eva Green does well as the love interest in an under-developed and passive role startlingly reminiscent of the equivalent role in Gladiator.

Visually the film is stunning, with siege battle sequences and massed armies that inevitably remind of Lord of the Rings, but are genuinely more realistic. I’ve never seen CGI look as seamlessly grimy and detailed as in this film, and there’s rarely the feeling of watching a slightly unreal environment which occasionally plagues such effects. Scott freely employs his familiar under-cranked camera and filters to add sudden slow-motion and crisp sprays of blood, which may sound bloodthirsty but does wonders for the gritty feel of the film.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s plenty here which leads you to feel as if Gladiator has been chopped up and reassembled in a different order, and yet that’s doing the film a complete disservice. Where Gladiator was very much of a formulaic romp in which a doomed hero challenges an empire – in the same vein as Spartacus, Braveheart and The Patriot – Kingdom of Heaven has a much more free flowing plot and wanders far from its template. It also scores highly for using the genre to make some timely points about religious intolerance. Neither the Christians nor the Muslims come out of the film with much nobility, and the futility of the cycle of conflict is starkly demonstrated. Although Saladin is certainly portrayed as a noble and wise figure, there are plenty of equally wise figures on the Christian side, as well as the venal and the corrupt.

My main criticism is that the film does take many liberties with history to make its points, primarily in the rather anachronistic and contemporary attitudes of most of the truly heroic characters. Many of our heroes doubt God, criticise the Crusades, argue for religious tolerance, preach peace between Muslims and Christians, break down class distinctions, and so on. In particular Bloom’s character feels like a modern man living in medieval times, and it’s hard to believe that some of his speeches don’t lead to him being stoned to death for blasphemy rather than applauded. He’s an almost secular hero in a religious conflict.

However, overall this is a worthwhile, persuasive and above all entertaining film which hardly puts a foot wrong from the moment it starts. Highly recommended.

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