KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

R

-By Lewis Beale


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Shot on location in Spain and Morocco, director Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven is certainly a feast for the eyes. Featuring a final battle extravaganza that will have filmgoers murmuring in appreciation, the picture does not stint on showmanship. But its mega-millions budget might have been put to better use in the screenplay department.

Kingdom of Heaven opens in the late 12th century, the interregnum between the Second and Third Crusades. In Jerusalem, a fragile peace prevails between the Christians who hold the city and the Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), whose massive army has surrounded its ramparts. In France, a disillusioned blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) discovers he is the illegitimate son of a fabled knight, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson). Godfrey convinces Balian that his destiny lies in the East, where he will discover the true essence of sacrifice-and knighthood.

Arriving in Jerusalem after sundry adventures (shipwreck, attack by Saracens), Balian soon begins an affair with Sibylla (Eva Green), wife of power-mad Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), who is in league with bloodthirsty Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson). Guy and Reynald want to bring down the fragile Christian peace and drive all Muslims from the Holy Land. Their major impediment is Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), military advisor to the Christian king, who continually counsels restraint.

Soon enough, however, the treachery of the Reynaud-Guy pairing leads to a massive assault on Jerusalem by Saladin's army. The defense of the city is led, of course, by Balian, who has slowly but surely emerged as the towering knight his father promised him he would become. And even though the city falls to the Saracens, Balian earns Saladin's respect and is allowed to return to France, his life, and love relationship, intact.

The problem with all this is that we've seen it before. Many times. Featuring one of those pseudo-pretentious scripts full of portentous ramblings and religio-spiritual aphorisms, Kingdom of Heaven occasionally borders on the risible. But its biggest sin is not being able to veer away from the stock situations and characters that seem to define brain-dead costume epics: the completely cardboard villains (Csokas and Gleeson seem to specialize in eyeball-rolling and twitching); the unnecessary, does-not-really-drive-the-plot-forward romance; and the lead character who Fulfills His Destiny in the cauldron of battle. At the very least, Orlando Bloom, a charismatic actor who does his best with an essentially one-note role, deserves better.

Where the film does break new ground, however, is in its portrait of decent Christian and Muslim leaders who attempt to broker a peace despite the urgings of their fanatical followers. In these post-9/11 times, it's especially interesting to see a real historical character like Saladin (played with intense charisma by Syrian actor Massoud) portrayed as he was in real life-a chivalrous human who earned the respect of his adversaries. It's when the maniacs gain the upper hand that things break down, a not-so-subtle message for our times.

Filled with plenty of spewing blood, decapitations, swordfights, hacked limbs and human torchings, Kingdom of Heaven is also one of the more violent films in recent memory. But maybe the violence serves a purpose-it keeps your mind off the inanities of the plot.
-Lewis Beale


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