For his latest mega-budget historical epic, Ridley Scott has turned his attentions to the Crusades and the 12th century capture of Jerusalem by Saladin. As with Gladiator, it’s a lavish, ambitious project, but though it has the same visual richness it lacks the emotional power and narrative simplicity of its predecessor.
Orlando Bloom stars as Balian, a young blacksmith whose faith has been shaken by the death of his young child and his wife’s subsequent suicide; it is in the wake of these tragic events that Lord Liam Neeson arrives to inform that he once ‘knew’ Balian’s mother. Neeson invests this brief appearance with his usual gravitas, exuding honour whilst also managing to winningly deliver such lines as “I fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.”
An arrow through the chest is a different matter however and he is soon obliged to pass on his title, his sword and his mission, to his illegitimate son. And so Balian heads to Jerusalem, where – after demonstrating that honour runs in the blood by freeing the servant of a Saracen he has slain in combat – he finds a peace of sorts and a dying King (Ed Norton, hidden behind a silver mask, one of the film’s most memorable aspects). And, of course, a beautiful Princess (Eva Green) who is, rather inconveniently, trapped in a marriage to a cruel man.
The film takes a long while to set all this up, a tentative approach that persists throughout. The script seems to be tiptoeing around the matter at hand, the essential nature of the Crusades themselves. There’s a lot of talk of building a better world and an eloquent oration on how Jerusalem is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims; those, on both sides, who seek to break the fragile truce are repeatedly referred to as “fanatics”. Hmm, do you see what they’re doing here? This is a film concerned with issues of peace and unity, and it certainly has a far more considered, intelligent tone than the average American blockbuster, which can only be applauded. But by grafting modern sensibilities and resonance onto this difficult period of history, Scott has ended up with something that will disappoint a good proportion of the audience.
The film is also hampered by the shadow of Gladiator; too many scenes and themes echo the earlier film in a manner that only serves to highlight how much better they could have been handled. So we have the intelligent, conflicted heroine; the epic scenes of battle; the knotty subplots about corruption and power, but really there’s nothing we haven’t seen before. And Bloom, though glossy-locked and always watchable, is no Russell Crow. Eva Green is requisitely beautiful and has a welcome presence as Princess Sybilla but her character is rather underwhelming; and Jeremy Irons is also in there somewhere, though he too is underused. In fact the character development is pretty thin throughout. What the film lacks is a really hissable villain of the Joaquin Phoenix as Commodious variety.
When the assault on the city eventually comes it is truly spectacular – and bloody – Scott does this kind of thing very well and this film is no exception. There are some incredible moments: one standout image being two waves of soldiers on horseback viewed from above, flowing towards each other with a kind of elegance before violently colliding. But it all comes a bit too late. Overlong – yet somehow not really long enough to do its subject justice – and muddled in its ideas, Kingdom Of Heaven will probably not rake in the Academy Awards but it is visually gorgeous and, in its favour it’s a lot better than some of the recent sword and sandal efforts. It could have been worse, it could have been Troy.