Just like Prometheus, Kingdom of Heaven is another Ridley Scott film I really enjoy despite its many problems. This extended cut doesn’t fix the core issues I have, but it’s still a far more satisfying experience than the horribly rushed theatrical cut.
The year is 1184, and in France, a young blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) is haunted by his wife’s recent suicide, a sin which condemns her to hell in the eyes of the church. He gets a chance at a new life when a group of Crusaders come by the village, among them Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), who reveals himself to be Balian’s father and asks him to join him in the Holy Land of Jerusalem.
First, the good stuff. The world this movie creates with its sets and costumes is absolutely gorgeous and stunning to look at. In particular, the wide shots of the Christian and Muslim armies, with their horses and banners and splendid armour, are pure medieval porn. More than that, this onscreen world feels truly lived in – a quality that is hard to capture and which Ridley Scott’s films do so well even when they falter in other respects. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams, combining Arabic and medieval Christian themes, is also wonderful (the jaunty Ibelin theme is particularly lively and memorable). The final siege of Jerusalem is truly spectacular; it starts off at night with a lone rider appearing in the desert, his sword shining in the moonlight, which is then followed by the fiery shower of missiles pouring on the city, massive siege towers employed during the day, and some clever defense tactics I haven’t previously seen in movies. Of course, like so many Hollywood films this one wants to have it both ways: it revels in the spectacle of warfare, while at the same time trying to show how terrible war is for both sides. War is bad… but doesn’t it just look awesome?
The supporting cast of the movie is also fabulous. Actors like Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons (playing Tiberius, the Marshal of Jerusalem) are naturals at this kind of medieval epic; Neeson might have played the wise-older-mentor-who-dies role too many times now but he’s just so good at it and his rugged masculine presence here is very welcome. Ghassan Massoud, who plays the Muslim ruler Saladin, is amazing in the role; he’s got tremendous presence and one of those faces full of character that command your attention.
Eva Green is Sibylla, the sister of the King of Jerusalem and the mother of a future king, and (duh) Balian’s love interest. I’ve been a fan of hers since Casino Royale and it’s a shame she’s mostly had flops and crappy sequels like Sin City since then; she’s an exotic beauty that Hollywood has no idea what to do with (very much like Angelina Jolie earlier in her career). I remember reading that she refused to promote this movie at the time, and having seen the extended cut it’s easy to see why. Her character’s storyline was butchered horribly in the theatrical version, completely removing the agonising choice she has to make which all but kills her. Sibylla is also, refreshingly, one of the very few morally grey characters in this movie which paints its good and bad guys with a very broad brush. The movie is also full of memorable minor characters like David Thewlis’ wise and unflappable Hospitaler, Alexander Siddig as a Muslim servant Balian encounters in the desert, and oh wait is that Jamie Lannister as the village sheriff?
My absolute favourite performance though belongs to Edward Norton as the leper king Baldwin IV. Hidden behind his eerie mask, he can only convey his character through the body language, voice and eyes, and while his overall screen time probably amounts to less than 10 minutes, he manages to create one of the most regal, haunting and memorable film characters I’ve ever seen. Though of course costume designers deserve credit too: the king’s metal mask is a far-fetched choice to wear in the heat of the desert, but I can forgive the contrivance because it’s such a striking visual. I looked up the real historical Baldwin IV by the way, and while he wasn’t anywhere near as saintly as the movie paints him, his is surely one of the greatest examples of guts and backbone in history.
The not so good stuff? Poor Orlando Bloom copped a lot of criticism for his performance, and yes it’s fair to say that he’s been terribly miscast here. He tries hard but he’s just not a leading man material, certainly not in an epic. He does have a rather soulful quality about him which is appealing, but no real grit or substance; his attempts at intensity come down to staring really hard into nothing and pursing his lips. It becomes glaringly obvious near the end of the movie, when most of the seasoned supporting cast either die or leave, and it falls to Bloom alone to carry the movie on his inadequate shoulders and give all sorts of heroic speeches that are meant to inspire but instead make me feel embarrassed on his behalf. He probably would have worked better if the movie showed him deliberately playing against the type, but it clearly means Balian to be a hero in the mold of Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
To be fair to Bloom though, the character of Balian as he’s written is problematic at the core and I don’t know if anyone else would have fared that much better. The character is just all over the place; he is supposedly a troubled man who comes to the Holy Land in search of redemption for himself and his wife (who by the way he seems to promptly forget as soon as he gets to Jerusalem), but then he’s also a Mr Perfect Badass who will beat any man in a fight, calm down any spooked horse, figure out how to procure water for his land because apparently the people who’ve only been living there for generations are too dumb to figure it out, is a genius tactician and defender, and is so perfectly noble he will do no wrong even if it means that countless lives will be lost because of his decision. When he arrives to Jerusalem, everyone there thinks he’s awesome right from the get go, because his father was awesome. When he does blatantly commit wrongdoings, the film brushes them away. He commits a violent murder in a fit of rage? No big deal. He sleeps around with a married woman? It’s ok, because her husband is a bad guy. Balian is just a humourless, hypocritical bore.
Then there’s the ultra simplistic way the film handles politics and religion of the period. I guess the film should be commended for not making out either Christian or Muslim side wholly bad or good, but what it does instead is simply split most of the characters on both sides into black-and-white good and bad guys. On the Christian side, we have not one but two corrupt boo-hiss priest characters, a moustache-twirling Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas in a hilariously overwrought performance) and those bad, bad Templar knights led by the bloodthirsty Reynald de Chatillion (Brendan Gleeson in a hilariously overwrought performance that’s actually very enjoyable – Reynald knows he’s a monster and by god he revels in it).
On the Muslim side, the movie is at pains to portray Saladin as being pushed into the conflict by his own mullah and the actions of the Christians. In Steven Runciman’s crusade books, Saladin does come off as one of the most likeable figures of the time, but make no mistake, he was totally onboard with the jihad thing and his peace with Baldwin IV was strictly temporary. It’s also pretty obvious that all the positive characters on the Christian side, even the ones that actually belong to a religious order, take a position that’s more about personal conscience than religion, which leads them to spout speeches that I might personally agree with but which are also much too 21st-century to be believable.
Overall though, while far from perfect I still think Kingdom of Heaven is one of the better historical epics of the last 10 years, and its good qualities outweigh the bad ones, for me.