Kingdom of Heaven

             When GLADIATOR opened in 2000, I was among the critics who were not overly impressed
     and frankly, I was shocked when the movie went on to win so many Academy Awards. I had admiration for
     what Ridley Scott and his team created, but the film just didn’t impress me. I generally like sweeping historical
     epics, but
GLADIATOR didn’t exactly do it for me. In the wake of such misguided efforts as TROY and
     ALEXANDER though, Scott's Oscar winner has begun to take on a brighter sheen.

             Now the director has realized a long-aborning project dealing with the Crusades, a movie that has
     undergone various incarnations and was released as
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. I suppose we can all give
     thanks that original star Arnold Schwarzenegger is now too busy running California, although the choice of
     Orlando Bloom for the leading role left some scratching their heads. Bloom, best known as Legolas in
THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies and as the insipid Paris in TROY, seemed a cynical ploy to bring
      in the teenage girls. Well, I can report that Scott knew what he was doing when he cast the up and coming
     actor. While he isn’t in the same league as a Russell Crowe (at least not yet), Bloom manages to acquit
     himself in the central role of blacksmith turned crusader Balian.

             As the film opens, Balian has recently lost his son and his wife has committed suicide in her grief. The
     surprise appearance of his long-lost father, the knight Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) doesn’t even affect
     him. He turns down an invitation to join Godfrey in Jerusalem, until a disreputable cleric (the oleaginous
     Michael Sheen) provokes him into committing a crime. With nothing to lose, Balian sets out to join his
     newfound father on the journey to Jerusalem.

             Balian’s presence, though, causes problems, particularly as he is a wanted man. When the sheriff’s men
     arrive, he proves his ability as a fighter, but his father’s men suffer losses. Still, he’s allowed to continue on the
     treacherous journey. Godfrey suffered a fatal wound, and eventually he dies, allowing the son to inherit his
     title. On his way to the holy city, he encounters a Muslim (Alexander Siddig) whose life he spares and when
     he does arrive at his destination, Balian is taken under the wing of Tiberius (Jeremy Irons, playing against
     type in a more heroic role).

             At court, the newcomer runs afoul of the Frenchman Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), who happens
     to be married to the princess Sibylla (Eva Green), sister of King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton, hidden
     behind silver and gold masks). Balian and Sibylla trade longing looks and eventually manage a romance when
     she pays a surprise visit to the castle he has inherited from his father. (The love story is one of the weaker
     links in William Monahan’s screenplay, which takes great liberties regarding  historical characters.)

             Working with much of his award-winning crew from
GLADIATOR (director of photography John
     Mathieson, costume designer Janty Yates, production designer Arthur Max, editor Dody Dorn),
     Ridley Scott has crafted a stunningly beautiful film to watch. The early sequences pay brief tribute to Ingmar
     Bergman and
THE SEVENTH SEAL and the latter battle sequences hold up against recent efforts such as

             The actors do yeoman work, with Norton delivering a fine turn as the leper king, Irons providing strong
     support as the voice of reason (in spite of looking and sounding villainous), and Ghassan Massoud brings
     humanity and dignity to the role of the Muslim leader Saladin.

             Given the tenor of the times in which we live, making a film about the period in which the Crusades
     occurred has to be seen as a risky proposition. As with
BLACK HAWK DOWN, Scott manages to skirt
     real controversy in favor of a balanced viewpoint, and that alone is an achievement.

                             Rating:                        B-
                             MPAA Rating:            R for strong violence and epic warfare
                             Running time:              145 mins.

                                             Viewed at the Loews 34th St. Theater
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.