Saturday, May 07, 2005

Review - Kingdom of Heaven

Hollywood has not been doing too well with historical epics lately. Last year Troy and King Arthur proved to be two of the summer’s biggest disappointments while we’ve already suffered Oliver Stone’s spectacular misfire Alexander in 2005. Now Ridley Scott, who had enormous success with Gladiator, tackles the crusades of the 12th century for his latest film Kingdom of Heaven.

The story is standard stuff for the genre. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a humble blacksmith mourning the death of his child and his wife, who committed suicide shortly afterwards. Out of the blue a knight of the crusades named Godfrey (Liam Neeson) turns up and announces himself as Balian’s father. Godfrey invites his son to join him as they travel to Jerusalem and Balian reluctantly agrees, hoping a prayer in the holy land will save his dead wife’s soul from eternal damnation. Along the way Godfrey gives Balian advice on how to be a good knight (always speak the truth, protect the helpless, look twice before crossing the road etc.) but he is killed during a battle and passes his mantle to his son.

Balian continues to Jerusalem and finds himself in the service of King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and quickly falls in love with the beautiful Sibylla (Eva Green) who, of course, is the wife of Balian’s fiercest rival Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). Balian has idealistic notions of Jerusalem being a place where Christians and Muslims can come together in peace and harmony, but Lusignan, along with his violent partner Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), is determined to take his place on the throne and wipe out the Muslims completely.

It takes forever for Kingdom of Heaven to get to this point and then it takes forever to drag itself to a conclusion. William Monaghan’s threadbare screenplay, Scott’s overheated direction and some bizarre casting choices sink this overlong, dull and confusing picture. The film also struggles with the almost impossible task of trying to please viewers of every denomination with a post-9/11 film of the crusades. Add these factors together and you’re left with one unholy mess.

The biggest flaw lies with the casting, especially the choice of actor in the lead role. Orlando Bloom was well-suited to his breakthrough role of Legolas in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but since then he has shown no real talent or depth, giving a series of nondescript performances. Here he has to carry a massive picture and he is left helplessly, embarrassingly adrift. The charisma-free Bloom adopts a sullen demeanour and maintains it for the whole film in the desperate hope that it will portray depth or suffering. He has no screen presence whatsoever and it makes you realise how much of Gladiator’s success was down to the committed central display from Russell Crowe. Bloom’s bland performance in the key role is a handicap the film can’t really recover from.

But none of the cast exactly distinguish themselves. Jeremy Irons is on pretty good form, giving a performance which falls just short of the line marked ‘hammy’, but Brendan Gleeson marches heedlessly over the line giving a ludicrously over-the-top turn. Eva Green is stripped of all the joie de vivre which she exhibited in The Dreamers and her budding romance with Balian is laughably rushed (their love scene must count as the most perfunctory on record), while Marton Csokas plays the cartoon villain with a permanent sneer. And what on earth is Edward Norton doing in this mess? He’s hidden by a metal mask throughout as the leprosy-afflicted King and contributes nothing to the film.

I’m no expert on this particular time in history but it looks like you’d have to be in order to completely follow Kingdom of Heaven. I often had no idea where particular scenes were taking place, why and with whom. Much of this is down to the choppy direction but most blame should be attached to Monaghan’s screenplay, which is riddled with holes (how did Balian suddenly become such a great tactician then?). Monaghan also has to negotiate the tricky waters of religion without offending anybody and has delivered a laughably watered-down script in which nearly all the Arabs are peaceful while the Christian knights (apart from Balian, obviously) are mostly bloodthirsty savages. In attempting to adapt a 12th century story to a 21st century mindset Monaghan seems terrified of dealing with religion at all, which is a problem in a story of religious war.

Of course, Scott can handle epic scenes, and much of the film is spectacular, but away from the battlefield his direction is repetitive and sloppy and his pacing is lethargic. Scott pulls out all the stops for the climactic siege of Jerusalem and finally the picture springs briefly into life. It’s a technically impressive sequence but you have to sit through the preceding two hours to experience it, and afterwards the film still has a bit of time left to fizzle out into a drab conclusion. The final battle is too little, too late and can’t disguise the fact that Kingdom of Heaven is a staggeringly inept film. Horribly overstretched at 145 minutes, the incoherent and shockingly boring Kingdom of Heaven is sheer hell to sit through.