(Originally posted on 5-12-05)
Kingdom of Heaven is a great example of how Ridley Scott likes to take a grand, sweeping canvas and paint a small picture of an individual in metamorphosis. The story revolves around Orlando Bloom as Balian, a blacksmith suffering a crisis of faith after his wife has committed suicide following the loss of their child during birth.
Into his life rides Liam Neeson as Godfrey, the father he never knew he had. Godfrey has come to ask Balian’s forgiveness and to offer him his rightful place by his side as his heir. Together they head off to the Crusades where, they believe, a man can earn his way back into the good graces of God.
The movie covers the path Balian takes from poverty and self doubt through his search for redemption to the head of what is left of the Christian Army in defense of their Holy City. On his journey his clear eyed honesty gains him mentors and friends that help lift him up.
Now it isn’t perfect, but it is good. Very good.
I wish we could have spent more time at the beginning delving more into the characters and their situations. I would have liked to have spent more time watching the uneasy and growing dynamic between Godfrey and Balian. The detached but amused dynamic between the Hospitaler (David Thewis) and Balian. The respectful kinship between Nasir (Alexander Siddig) and Balian. The mentorship of Balian by Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). The glee in causing war and bloodshed that is reveled in by Reynald (Brendan Gleeson). I would like to have seen more of the enmity that existed between Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) and Godfrey which gave such instant rise to his dislike of Balian. I wanted to know more about Jerusalem (the King, not the City) as played by Jon Finch and Saladin as played by Ghassan Massoud and how their relations with Balian affected their choices. All of these supporting characters brought a tremendous amount of depth to the story just by their performances, and they all left you wanting to know more about them.
Orlando Bloom as the centerpiece could have potentially been the weakest link, however, the role as written and performed took advantage of his weakness as a lead performer. The character was quiet, introverted and contemplative for most of the film. All of the other more vocal characters revolved around him giving him the opportunity to observe, think and choose his path each step of the way. By the end of the film when he has thought through the whole situation and weighed the risk and price of each of the choices before him, he makes his stand based on principle that does not conflict with his already conflicted faith or with the vows he has taken as a Knight on behalf of the King of Jerusalem.
The final battle scene is by far the most epic I have seen. Ridley Scott has a pure eye for intuitive grand action set pieces. He seems to have an unerring instinct for setting up the big picture and then piecing all of the little pieces of it together without losing the viewer’s overall sense of place in the middle of the chaos. It was evident in Gladiator – where I think he really started to hit his second wind as a film maker – that he found his niche, that his real interest lie in finding the small individual moments in a big washing ocean of events and focusing in on that. He really is like a painter of film, more so than any of his contemporaries. The closest to even coming near his level at this kind of thing is probably Terrence Malick, but Malick’s failing (getting caught up in the politically correct messaging of the story) is not one of Scott’s
Now as to the question of historical accuracy I can’t speak. I would like to believe this is close to the way it really was, but I am sure it isn’t close. A cursory search of the Crusades didn’t bring up a Balian or a Tiberias or a Godfrey. The overall tone was much friendlier to the Muslim side of the story than to the Christian side, but I can’t pretend to know anything at any depth with regard to the actual motivating factors of the issue, other than the Christians wanted Jerusalem and the Muslims wanted Jerusalem, each for their own socio-political reasons. Instead of being history by way of documentation, research and scholarship, it is more like history by way of Hollywood, which I guess is exactly what it is – light weight and skin deep – but it is compelling and it does make you want to ask questions and study it further. But at the end of the day, the historical accuracy or lack thereof really doesn’t matter because in this film the story of the Crusades is secondary, the real story is about a man who has lost his way in a complicated world and can only find it again by being true to his heart and conscience and doing what is right because it is right and not because it is what is expected.
It is not as good as it could be, in order to be that it would need to have at least another 30 minutes or so of running time, but it is much better than it has a right to be. Ridley Scott is the grand master of the Intimate Epic. I really hope he keeps on making them.