In its depiction of a fleeting, but nevertheless factual, peace in the Middle East, Ridley Scott's KingdomofHeavenmay seem a more quixotic Hollywood fantasy than all six StarWarsmovies lumped together. The time is the late 12th century, between the second and third Crusades, and the place is Jerusalem, where an uneasy truce has been struck between the leper King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton, his face concealed beneath a smooth, silvery mask) and the fearsome Muslim leader Saladin (Syrian actor Ghassan Masoud). But under pressure from extremists on both sides—chief among them, Baldwin's warmongering would-be successor, Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas)—the detente proves short-lived. Evidence that, where men and holy lands are concerned, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The model for Scott's new film (visually and thematically) is in many ways his beautiful and absurd debut feature, The Duelists, in which Joseph Conrad's feuding Napoleonic soldiers pursued each other across great canvases of space and time until the cause of their initial conflict had become irretrievably blurred. In Kingdom of Heaven, the dynamic is different—Baldwin and Saladin can conceive of the peace, though their armies cannot—but the point is fundamentally the same: The battle rages on because it is all that the combatants can conceive of. Forthrightly and unapologetically, Scott and his screenwriter, William Monahan, have positioned KingdomofHeavenas a tract against religious intolerance, rife with philosophizing about the consequences of acts committed in God's name that sounds decidedly more modern than medieval. ("We fight for an offense we did not give against those who were not alive to be offended," reasons one of the film's Christian knights—an aphorism one could easily imagine popping up in a late-period Godard film.)
I should add that Kingdom of Heaven, for all its unusual (for Hollywood) polemical stance, remains an expensive, multinational product made somewhat by committee and designed for mass consumption by the largest possible audience. Throughout the film, you sense how Scott's native intelligence and fanatical fascination with the period are at odds with a Hollywood superego telling him that the story must contain a reluctant warrior hero (Orlando Bloom, as the blacksmith-turned-knight Balian), a beautiful love interest (sultry Eva Green as Baldwin's sister, Sibylla) and not one but two of those faux St. Crispin's Day speeches delivered by said hero on the eve of battle. (Which is to say nothing of the de rigueur boiling down of complex political relationships into easily digestible morsels of good and evil.)
But if the compromises are manifold, they're not nearly as many as they might have been, resulting in a tempered, thoughtful piece of mainstream entertainment that few will confuse with Andrei Rublev, but which may nevertheless disappoint those who are expecting Gladiator II—which, in case you haven't caught my drift, I intend as a compliment. As Balian, Bloom is more minimus than Maximus, possessing about as much native authority as a postal clerk, and he's effective for that very reason—even though we know he must eventually rise to the occasion against Saladin's encroaching hordes, Bloom almost convinces us that he might, at any given moment, pack it all in and head back to the iron forge. And while Scott still can stage a battle sequence on par with the best of them, in KingdomofHeavenhe spends as much or more time burying us in the aftermath of such engagements, opting to keep one major confrontation (the bloody Battle of Hattin) entirely offscreen. Even once we arrive at the climactic (and verybloody) siege of Jerusalem, Scott makes us feel the full moral weight of the blows landed by swords, arrows and giant pots of boiling oil. By doing so, he guarantees that the provocative question (and ambiguous answer) voiced late in KingdomofHeavenwill reverberate that much more troublingly into the night: "What is Jerusalem worth? Everything. Nothing."
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN WAS PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY RIDLEY SCOTT; WRITTEN BY WILLIAM MONAHAN. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.
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