Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Kingdom of the Heavy: Notes on Kingdom of Heaven


Rows of corpses, computer-generated vultures, Orlando Bloom in a pointy helmet with a piece of metal that droops down his nose: welcome to Ridley Scott’s monster two and a half hour epic Kingdom of Heaven.

It is 1184, and Godfrey (Liam Neeson) calls on his son Balian (Bloom) in his modest blacksmith shop in Northern France to ask him if he will forgive him for being such a deadbeat dad and join him for a crusade to Jerusalem. Balian says no at first, but then he learns that his priest stole a silver cross from the corpse of his wife who recently committed suicide after the death of their son, so Balian kills the priest in his rage and grief by dunking him in the flames of his smithy, and rejoins his father.

By the way, northern France is very dark and blue and wintry in this film, I think to contrast later with all of the sunlit burnt sienna scenes out in the desert of the Middle East. Out in the cold woods, Godfrey teaches his son how to fight with his sword held just so over his head, which comes in handy because they get attacked soon after. Godfrey gets mortally wounded, but he is a knight, so before he dies, he dubs his son Sir, slaps him on the face so he’ll remember the oath, and soon Orlando Bloom takes off from the port Messina to seek forgiveness in the holy lands and collect on his dad’s inheritance, an estate near Jerusalem.

Since I respect much of the director Ridley Scott’s previous work, with masterful films such as Alien and Thelma and Louise, I tried to follow this one, but it has a heavy- going slog of a story, and the film is further burdened by its ambition to comment obliquely on the current Iraq war while shoring up Bloom’s status as macho leading man. The studio behind the film, Twentieth Century Fox, hopes that this costume epic can become a blockbuster after Alexander tanked last year, but I have my doubts. With all of its noble speeches and thunking, crushing fight scenes, Kingdom of Heaven feels loaded down with its earnest epic grandiosity.

To be fair, Bloom is a good actor, and his character has an egalitarian contempt for the phony agendas of the Crusaders, the way that religion can mask power grabs for money and land. He says things like “We defend the city to protect the people, their safety and freedom” and “God will understand. If he does not understand, then he is not God” as he develops his unblacksmithlike ability to inspire and lead people, but I kept noticing things like how the computer-generated imagery troops in the distance looked like undulating sandpiles, and how Jeremy Irons seems wasted as a gruff Tiberias with a tear-drop scar on one cheek. The female lead, Sibylla, played by Eva Green, tries to enliven things with her passion for the leading man, and she has a brief, dull sex scene with Balian, but she ends up mostly looking pensive in eye-liner as she mourns over her dead brother who had leprosy and a fey voice behind a metal mask.

I’m skipping a lot, but after one army dies stupidly out in the desert, the movie boils down to a siege between the sympathetically portrayed Muslim troops of Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and the Balian-led city of Jerusalem. With many of the professional soldiers already dead, Balian finds ways to get his people fired up, such as by knighting them en masse, or by laying little white markers out in the desert so they can see how far to catapult flaming balls at the advancing hordes. For awhile, the film attains a better focus and some suspense, but by then I was worn out by so many corpses, Bloom’s cheekbones, flags flapping in the wind, and grandiose encounters between leaders seeking terms. With all of its divisions lumbering in place, the film moves too much like an army for me to wish for anything but the war to end.

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