Original release: May 6th, 2005
Running time: 194 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, David Thewslis
Kingdom Of Heaven was proof—if proof was needed—that Ridley Scott was not David Lean. The already long theatrical cut was an incomprehensible but handsome looking mess and the extended version added three quarters of an hour to the running time, closing some of the more ludicrous gaps. However, even at over three hours, the period drama never attains the true power of the epic.
It is 1184 and Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith in a small French village who, following personal tragedy and a surprise meeting with his real father (Liam Neeson), finds himself in the company of crusaders on the road for Jerusalem. Through various, twists and turns Balian (now Balian of Iblin following his father’s death) finds himself in the between the Second and Third crusades attempting to defend the fragile peace against the ambitions of an emerging Saladin and the religious fervour of various knightly orders, typified by the Knights Templar led by pantomime villain, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), who wish to provoke a war.
Balian is aided by the advice of the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and the steadfast presence of his father’s friend, a nameless Hospitaler played by David Thewslis. Balian also enjoys a burgeoning romance with Princess Sybylla (Eva Green), who unfortunately is married to Balian’s enemy, Guy, and passes time renovating his inherited lands. However, war is almost inevitable and it will be Balian who will be left to defend the city against Saladin’s massive army.
Kingdom Of Heaven certainly has breadth and many of the pleasures can be found in the periphery, but at its heart it is empty and un-engaging. It would be easy to point a finger at the casting of Orlando Bloom and so let’s start there. Following a pleasing cameo as the Elf, Legolas, in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Bloom was obviously a star on the rise, but what he didn’t seem to be was an actor, and the role of Balian is a large one, with the lion’s share of screen time and a complicated, and frankly implausible, arc to fulfil: from simple blacksmith to defender of the city.
Bloom is unable to convince in any of this. He neither looks nor talks like a blacksmith, nor a grieving husband, nor a brother murder, nor a leader of men. He says things and wears clothes but that’s about it. He has no charisma; no pull. It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by wonderful actors with spades of charisma. As the leper King of Jerusalem, Edward Norton manages to convey more emotion than Bloom whilst wearing a mask.
However, it’s not all the fault of the casting of the grown up version of the Milky Bar Kid in the lead. If Scott is no Lean, then his screenwriter William Monahan is no Robert Bolt. As already noted, flaws in the story were partly repaired by the extended version—several people mention how great Balian is so that we can more easily swallow his later transformation into warlord—but even here exposition is clunky and character is often said rather than shown.
The pace of the film, especially at the beginning, is as such that it completely beggars belief. Balian is in jail because his wife has just committed suicide, then his real long lost father turns up (‘Crusaders’, someone usefully notes as crusaders ride past), then he kills his brother, then his father is fatally wounded protecting him, then there’s a ship wreck… This isn’t a story. This is just stuff happening.
Balian is gifted with superhuman powers of learning. He has one training session with the sword and becomes an expert swordsman. He arrives at his land and the blacksmith from France immediately hatches a plan to irrigate the desert, as if it wouldn’t have occurred to the locals. When he has to lead men, he gives the by now (post-Braveheart) obligatory ‘rousing’ speech, but it’s bathetic at best. When he talks about the city, he doesn’t mean the streets and the buildings, he means the people. Was anyone really convinced they were fighting to protect the Post Office and municipal swimming pool?
Of course, the film looks good—although Ridley Scott needs to be told that snow tends to fall down, not up—and the battle scenes are epic and, for the most part, exciting, but if we’re to praise the film for this and leave aside character, story etc. then we are really saying that Scott is a very good Second Unit Director. The set design is great, the cinematography, the music, but ultimately I don’t care what happens mainly because I don’t believe what happens. And we’re not talking about CGI and the Shock and Awe attack on Jerusalem. If the characters don’t convince us, then all the special effects in the world won’t make up for that.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.