Kingdom Of Heaven

***1/2

Reviewed by: Symon Parsons

Following the disasters of Troy and Alexander, the historical blockbuster should be dead, or at least twitching. That it isn't is due to one film - Gladiator. Ridley Scott's towering epic, dominated by a masterful Russell Crowe and peppered with iconic lines, will guarantee an audience for this manner of thing for some time. Now Ridley returns with Kingdom Of Heaven, his account of the 12th century battle for Jerusalem. Can it compare to his earlier epic?

To put it bluntly, no. That's not to say Kingdom Of Heaven isn't a good film. In fact, it is very fine indeed and, while accuracy is a bit much to expect, it keeps a respectful distance from actual events, as opposed to the Maximus movie, which made Asterix look authoritative.

It tells the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith who discovers he is the heir to Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a Christian noble in the Holy Land. In a time of religious fanaticism, he finds that his dead wife's soul has been condemned to hell, so follows Godfrey back to Jerusalem, in order to expunge her sins. There, he discovers that the enemy is not the Saracens, but the corrupt Knights Templar, who propose ethnic cleansing of Moslems. They are led by Martin Csokas, as Guy de Lusignan, who has his eye on the throne of Jerusalem.

The fragile peace that holds between Moslem and Christian is shattered when the tolerant King of Jerusalem (Jon Finch) dies, leaving Guy with a free hand and Balian in charge of the defence of the Holy City. As Saladin and his Saracens lay siege, Balian must face an enemy he has grown to respect.

With the scene set, Ridley unleashes his special effects. The battle for Jerusalem is full of jaw-dropping, breathless action, beginning with a fantastic nighttime ballista attack and climaxing with a brutal charge through a breach in the city wall by the numerically superior Saracen forces. As in Gladiator, Scott has CGI'd a beautiful film, complete with a stunning Jerusalem cityscape and a devastating shot of the aftermath of the decisive battle of Hattin, with birds circling to feast on the dead.

Despite this, Kingdom Of Heaven feels like Gladiator lite. It never achieves the gravitas of that film, due to a pompous script, which appears to have been written with Every Portentous Word Capitalised and every sentence turned into a speech.

This mothball effect sucks all passion from the film - the love story between Balian and Sybilla (Eva Green) dies on its feet early on - and whatever energy there is must come from the actors. Jeremy Irons manages it, as does David Thewlis, who imbues his character with a Johnny Rotten swagger. Unfortunately, Bloom simply does not have the charisma to rise above his lumpy dialogue. Where Crowe dominated, Bloom is doleful. I suggest he stays away from Noble and Anguished roles for a while, before he turns into the English Keanu Reeves. Meanwhile, Csokas turns in a performance that seems to belong in an altogether cheesier film, ranging from Alan Rickman bonkers to Tim Curry barking.

It's these factors that cut the ground from under Kingdom Of Heaven and stops it being what it might have been. That said, it's good entertainment and a great deal more thoughtful than Gladiator, which was a simple revenge story. Due to a subject, heavy with contemporary analogies, Scott has to juggle entertainment and political correctness, which he does with surprising deftness.

"What is Jerusalem worth?" asks Balian in the film's closing moments.

"Nothing... Everything," replies Saladin, reinforcing the message that the Kingdom Of Heaven isn't a place, but a state of tolerance and harmony.

It's a rare action movie that contains a convincing message of peaceful co-existence, but this one pulls it off, which makes it worth two-and-a-half hours of anyone's time.

Reviewed on: 06 May 2005
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Retelling of the 12th Century battle for Jerusalem.
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Read more Kingdom Of Heaven reviews:

Nick Jones ***
The Remote Viewer ***

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: William Monahan

Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Eva Green, Ghassan Moussaud, Marton Csokas

Year: 2005

Runtime: 145 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Spain/UK

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If you like this, try:

Gladiator