Movie Reviews
11:11 am
Mon May 2, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

Credit the director and writer for balancing the guilt and horror among Christians, Jews, and Arabs.

"There was a Knight, a most distinguished man,

Who from the day on which he first began

To ride abroad had followed chivalry,

Truth, honour, generousness and courtesy.

He had done nobly in his sovereign's war

And ridden into battle, no man more,

As well in Christian as in heathen places,

And ever honoured for his noble graces."

Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales"

In Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a former blacksmith turned knight, at the siege of Jerusalem in the late 12th century. Director Ridley Scott takes care to make this knight every bit as ideal as Chaucer made his. In the process Balian becomes too perfect, perhaps because of Bloom's cross gender prettiness and the intonations of his dialogue, each word of which weighs heavily on the leader and the viewer. I probably missed a moment of light-heartedness, if there is one. This film could have used a good study of Chaucer to show how to intersperse gravity with levity.

In other words, Scott has forsaken the gritty toughness of Russell Crowe's Oscar performance in Gladiator for the saintliness of Bloom, which makes Kingdom of Heaven a parable of virtue rather than a hardscrabble tale of violence and intrigue. The violence makes itself known in every other scene, as to be expected in the genre, but with the quick cut, hand-held blurriness and slomo now characteristic of war films that eschew realism for artiness and thereby lose the sense of reality.

Kenneth Branagh's Henry V got battle just right with a camera that stayed in the action at a reasonable length for shots and ended with an Agincourt unforgettable for its camera tracking over the carnage and music something like a funereal choir at a midnight mass. Scott's fidelity to the war technology of the time with catapulting balls of oil and movable breaching towers is offset by a constant choir of angels so pervasive it loses its effect by the end of the final battle.

Credit the director and writer for balancing the guilt and horror among Christians, Jews, and Arabs. Jerusalem's King Baldwin (voice of Edward Norton) is a leper, hidden behind stunning silver masks, weakened but determined to the end to save his people from the overwhelming hordes of Muslims, led by the audience-pleasing Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). The "terms" between Christians and Muslims allow both sides to exit with honor.

It is clear no one owned Jerusalem in the Middle Ages, and no one owns it now, Palestinian protests notwithstanding. For a history lesson with modern relevances, see this epic; for a lighter touch, see Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale; to have it all, read Chaucer.