In the late 12th Century, during the Crusades of the Holy Land, a young French blacksmith mourns the suicide of his wife after the death of their young son. On hearing this news, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a highly regarded baron to the King of Jerusalem who is deeply committed to keeping peace in the Holy Land, seeks out the grieving Balian, his illegitimate son. Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) will rise to become a knight, a brilliant military tactician, a romantic lover and peacemaker, driven by the possibility that Muslims, Jews and Christians can co-exist in the same land.
Kingdom of Heaven certainly looks impressive (as you would expect from a £75 million Ridley Scott movie) thanks to production designer Arthur Max, who also worked on Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2002). Here he has memorably replicated 12th century Jerusalem, with its magnificent churches, minarets, temples, and palaces. Computerised graphics compliment the whole effect, as does the clever insertion of buildings from Morocco and Spain.
The story oscillates between representing the good Christians such as the handsome Balian (Orlando Bloom) and the stereotypical screen bad guys, represented by the ugly, aggressive Templars, who simply want to crush the Muslim world using the excuse that it is God’s wish. They are led by Guy De Lusignan (Marton Csokas) who is married to the beautiful Sibylla (Eva Green), and is therefore the brother-in-law of King Baldwin (Edward Norton), the peaceful Christian King of Jerusalem. Edward Norton shines in his cameo role playing an historical figure that is rather under-represented. Because of the advanced stage of leprosy which is killing him, Norton’s King wears a delicately etched silver mask over his face and speaks with a suitably sepulchral tone. Norton certainly has the aura and presence for the role, and the short screen time in which he appears leaves us wanting more.
Kingdom of Heaven sets out its stall as the Hollywood blockbuster epic we would expect, but its initial promise never quite comes to fruition. Aside from Edward Norton, only Ghassan Massoud as Saladin (in what appears to be his first film role) portrays a fully rounded character. As the film depicts the oppression of Muslims, he represents the anger towards the invading crusaders which parallels Muslim opposition in the current world climate, particularly regarding President Bush’s own Middle East crusades. The climax of the film is the spectacular attack on Jerusalem, complete with siege engines and catapults hurling flaming balls through the night sky, not only justifying the director’s budget but also Scott’s research into medieval machinery.
The casting in this film pushes the bigger established names like Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons into the background, and gives plenty of screen time to Orlando Bloom. Although it is arguably his most mature role to date, he again fails to measure up, and, as with the other main actors, you don’t really feel anything for him. His lines are meant to be historically poignant and memorable but come across at times as someone merely acknowledging the script. When Balian says, ‘Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Safeguard the helpless, even if it leads to your death; that is your oath. Rise a knight… rise a knight!’ we should feel an emotional surge, but somehow don’t feel any self-belief in his statement.
This is also true of Eva Green’s character of Sibylla. In her short career she has already given two good performances for foreign directors – seek out her roles in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) and the forthcoming Arsène Lupin (2005) by French director Jean-Paul Salomé. Here she seems miscast and far less comfortable in an almost whimsical performance and her appropriately exotic costumes. Hopefully she won’t follow the same arthouse to commercial cinema route chosen to detrimental effect by other beautiful and talented actors like Juliette Binoche.
Watching Kingdom of Heaven is a similar experience to watching The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), not because of Orlando Bloom, but because it comes across as a long introduction to a story that will be continued. Indeed, the greater part of the crusades will be Richard the Lionheart’s journey into the Holy Land that takes place immediately after this film ends. Perhaps Iain Glen going head to head with Massoud’s Saladin would have been more compelling, and a more befitting event in history for an epic Hollywood blockbuster.