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Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

The Crusades

Directed by:

Ridley ScottRidley Scott

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 145 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States, Spain, United Kingdom

The year is 1186, between the Second and Third Crusades. Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) returns to his native France to invite his illegitimate son Balian (Orlando Bloom), a blacksmith, on a holy mission in Jerusalem. Eager to escape personal bereavement and to find forgiveness for his own sins, Balian joins his estranged father – but before they ever reach Jerusalem, Godfrey is gravely injured, and knights Balian before dying. Balian finds a precarious peace in the Holy Land. By treating all races and religions with fairness, the good King Baldwin (Edward Norton, unrecognisable behind mask and make-up) and his loyal general Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) have managed to maintain a truce with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the equally wise ruler of the mighty Syrian army of Saracens – but Baldwin, crippled by leprosy, does not have long to live, and the Muslim-hating Knights Templar, led by power-hungry Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and his cruel lieutenant Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), are engaged in a covert campaign of terror. As it becomes inevitable that the Saracens will march in overwhelming numbers against Jerusalem, Balian, helped by Baldwin’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green), must call on all his strategic prowess and high ideals to save what is truly valuable in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The latest film by director Ridley Scott (who was himself recently knighted), ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ at first seems to be the bastard offspring of his previous blockbuster Gladiator (2000). After all, both are grand historic epics of comparable length featuring a main character seeking to refind himself after the death of his wife and child. Yet where Gladiator turned cinemagoers into a mob of Roman spectators baying for ever more bloody excess, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ instead appeals to the very best in its viewers, and steadfastly refuses to glorify war or violence. One scene in which two huge armies face one another ends with no battle at all, after terms are successfully agreed by the leaders – while conversely the Battle of Hattin, in which Guy’s vast forces were trapped and slaughtered by the waiting Saracens, is depicted only in its build-up and carrion-bird aftermath, with the actual killing left entirely to the viewers’ imagination. When fighting is shown, it is shot with impressionistic closeness – and the final battle at the gates of Jerusalem is filmed from above with a ‘God’s-eye view’ that serves to emphasise the futility of so much death. Few war films could get away with portraying a negotiated surrender as a heroic triumph – but of course ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is really a peace film, concerned more with the creation of heaven than hell on earth.

Made at a time when the Western forces have once again invaded the Middle East (in a war irresponsibly dubbed a ‘crusade’ by America’s President), and when claims to Jerusalem are again being violently contested, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ has obvious resonances with some of the most politically sensitive areas of contemporary history. As such, it was being accused variously of being anti-Christian and anti-Islamic before filming had even begun. It is in fact neither – although its championing of tolerance and humanism will be anathema to fundamentalists of any faith, while its open condemnation of religious hypocrisy ought to shame those who use the name of God to justify greedy campaigns for land, resources and power.

In the end, though, instead of trying to reflect the world as it is, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ inspires viewers to dream of one that is better. Few films in recent times have examined the possibilities of human virtue, elevated beyond the divisions of race, religion and class, with such compelling intelligence. Despite its camply cartoonish Templar villains, and a romantic subplot that seems merely to have been tacked on as a concession to generic convention, ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a powerful spiritualist epic that beats Gladiator hands down in the Colosseum of ideas.

It's Got: Liam Neeson and Brian Gleeson effectively reprising, but vastly improving upon, their respective rôles in The Phantom Menace and Troy; Orlando Bloom proving at last that he is more than just a pin-up; spectacular sets and cinematography; and a moral seriousness that, unusually for these times, seeks to improve its viewers, not to mention the world.

It Needs: To integrate the romantic subplot better (although Eva Green gives it her best); and, given its subtle portrayal of human good, to make its wicked characters less cartoon-like (at times Marton Csokas seems to be doing a Tim Curry impression).

Alternatives:

1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Saladin, Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace

Summary

A powerful spiritualist epic that beats 'Gladiator' hands down in the Colosseum of ideas.

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