Kingdom of Heaven (United States/United Kingdom/Spain, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In Gladiator, director Ridley Scott transported movie audiences to the year 180 AD. Five years and four motion pictures later, the Oscar-winning director has again immersed himself in the blood and gore of hand-to-hand combat, although this time the era is a millennium further along in history. Kingdom of Heaven is similar to Gladiator in many ways, with large, violent battle scenes and instances of great human courage and sacrifice, proving that not all that much changed between the time of the Roman Empire and the Crusades. Where Kingdom of Heaven can be found lacking, however, is in its context. Although the story is streamlined so as not to confuse viewers, there's a sense that a lot is missing - which, of course, is the case.

It's 1184 and Balian (Orlando Bloom) is in mourning, having recently buried his wife and child. Into his life during this dark period comes Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), who has decided to make himself known to his only son. The younger man agrees to accompany his father on a journey to Jerusalem to atone for his sins and those of his late wife (who committed suicide, and, by Catholic doctrine, is consigned to hell). A battle on the road to Messina leaves Godfrey mortally wounded. Before he succumbs to the fever caused by his injury, Godfrey knights Belian and confers upon him the title of Baron of Iblein. Months later, after surviving a ship-wreck, Balian arrives in Jerusalem as the ally of the leper king, Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), and the Marshall of Jerusalem, Tiberias (Jeremy Irons). One of the most influential men in the king's inner circle, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), takes an instant dislike to Balian, but that doesn't stop the new Baron of Ibelin from having an affair with Guy's wife, Sibylla, the Princess of Jerusalem (Eva Green). Meanwhile, in the lands surrounding the Holy City, the Arab leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) is massing an army of 200,000 men to take back Jerusalem from the Christians who have occupied it for 100 years.

The film flouts history on a number of points that are worth noting more as curiosities than as criticisms. The romance between Balian and Sibylla is an invention of screenwriter William Monahan. According to the historical record, Sibylla was happily married to Guy and was never linked sexually with Balian. (He had a wife and children, who were very much alive.) In addition, the succession did not pass directly from Baldwin IV to Sibylla, as Kingdom of Heaven indicates. There was actually a brief period of rule for Baldwin V, Sibylla's young son, who died after only a few months' reign. By fictionalizing these (and other) aspects of the historical record, Scott and Monahan are able to develop a more dramatic story.

The relationship between Balian and Sibylla is one of the film's weaker points, due in large part to the uneven manner in which it is developed. It's as if this started out as a significant aspect of the main storyline, then was shoehorned into a minor subplot. A similar comment can be made about the antagonism between Balian and Guy, which all-but-evaporates. (Guy's fate is left ambiguous, which is another minor source of frustration.) And the political backstory is greatly simplified.

Even with those flaws exposed, Kingdom of Heaven remains a hugely enjoyable experience. The battle scenes, especially the 1187 siege of Jerusalem, are handled expertly. There's plenty of the same "wow!" factor that was evident in The Two Towers, when hundreds of thousands of orcs assaulted Helm's Deep. Scott keeps the action tightly concentrated on Balian, never losing focus the way Oliver Stone did in Alexander. Kingdom of Heaven runs nearly 2 1/2 hours, but is tautly paced so as to not seem nearly that long.

Kingdom of Heaven has a message, as well. Ironically, for a film about one of the most intolerant periods of human history, Scott is preaching tolerance. Although the Arabs and Christians slaughter each other by the thousands during the course of the story, it is ultimately a sense of mutual respect and understanding that avoids a final massacre. It's impossible not to note parallels to today's world situation and to recognize that Scott is reminding us of the age-old cliché: those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

One could argue that this is Orlando Bloom's first dramatically heavy role, as there's more heft to the part than to his other well-known characters (The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Troy). His performance is better than adequate, but a step below eye opening. He's a solid fit for the part, and, while there are times when he seems out of his league opposite Liam Neeson or Jeremy Irons, for the most part he holds his own. Somewhat disappointing is Eva Green, who, after a seductive turn in The Dreamers, shows little charisma or presence as Sibylla. The supporting actors playing the Arabs - Ghassan Massoud as Saladin and Alexander Siddig (of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") as his right-hand-man, Nasir - do superlative jobs bringing dignity and humanity to these roles.

Kingdom of Heaven is unlikely to receive the same kind of Oscar buzz that surrounded Scott's Gladiator. It's neither as complete nor as rousing an experience. But, compared to Troy, the battle-soaked disappointment that started last year's summer season, it's an improvement. Kingdom of Heaven may have problems, but it delivers. You may not leave the theater feeling better educated about history or enlightened about the Crusades, but you will leave satisfied that the filmmakers have delivered 145 minutes of exciting, visceral cinema.

Kingdom of Heaven (United States/United Kingdom/Spain, 2005)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1