Film — Kingdom of Heaven (R)

Kingdom of Heaven (R)

by Amy Diaz

History comes alive once again for Ridley “Gladiator” Scott in Kingdom of Heaven, a tale of love and sacrifice during the Crusades.

Kingdom of Heaven approaches the Crusades in a very patient, junior-high-history-class kind of way. No previous knowledge is expected or required. The movie explains the basics of the Crusades: roughly a thousand years ago, when Europe was a poverty-ridden god-awful place to live, Christians attempted to conquer or “liberate,” depending on how you want to look at it, the Holy Land from the Muslims or “evil-doers” (depending on where you sat, ecumenically speaking). The Christians took Jerusalem, managed it badly and eventually got their crusading asses handed to them by the locals who didn’t look too kindly on interlopers. The Christians, however, being not the swiftest of learners, kept trying for a while until shortly before they found new worlds to pester with their religion and conquests.

On the other hand, the movie suggests, the Crusades were really less about God’s Will and more about finding new lands to plunder and new countries where one could set up a monarchy and a noble class. Or, and one gets this sense from early scenes in France, maybe the Crusaders where just desperate to live somewhere sunny, dry and away from other Europeans, who were frankly a bunch of kill-joys.

Take for example, the blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom). Poor guy’s wife is so upset over the death of their child — probably a horrible disease-related death, though the movie doesn’t specify — that she kills herself. If that isn’t bad enough, the local priest lords it over Balian that for this sin she’ll spend eternity in hell (also, he cut off her head when he buried her and stole her necklace). Then, Balian — not having the best of days — gets a rather perfunctory visit from Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), the noble-born father he’s never met who may or may not have raped his mom. After this enchanting family bonding moment, Balian tosses the taunting priest into the fire-pit in his shop and sets off to join his dad in the Crusade, thinking that perhaps a few weeks in Jerusalem will help improve his and his wife’s standing, sin-wise, with the Big Guy.

Of course the road to salvation is never pothole-free. Dad’s force gets cut in half when Johnny Law arrives to bring in Balian for his priest-killing activities. A few of the crusaders nonetheless make it to Messina but the cruise to the other side of the Mediterranean is less about shuffleboard and buffets and more about choppy seas and ship-cracking lightning. Balian winds up in shipwrecked and alone on the edge of the desert.

But our little absolution-seeker is a tough camper. He makes his way to Jerusalem and hooks up with his dad’s friends, including the wonderfully weary Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), who sees Balian as a potential ally on the court of the Christian king of Jerusalem (Edward Norton, though you never see the face of the masked, leprosy-having king). Tiberias, Balian’s dad and a few more brave soldiers stand with the king as defenders of reasonable peace. (Let everyone worship however they want; don’t make any sudden moves around the neighbors.) On the other side are Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and his stooge Reynald (Brendan Gleeson) (both French and therefore obviously evil). These men want a big fun holy war with the neighboring Muslims because apparently nobody explained to them what the words “tenuous hold on a militarily indefensible position” mean.

Complicating the politics and war a bit is Sibylla (Eva Green), sister of the king. Because she is the future queen of Jerusalem, whoever happens to be her husband will be king. Momentarily, that happens to be Guy de Lusignan, not that they’re so terribly fond of each other. But Sibylla has a fondness for the moody young Balian and both she and her brother think he would make a better king. But the suddenly very moral Balian has a hard time with the idea that the execution of Guy will fit with his redemption campaign.

Kingdom of Heaven seems to sum itself up on the final title card which informs us that, even 1,000 years later, peace in the kingdom of heaven remains elusive. So, class, what have we learned here today? The message is not so ham-fisted as to directly make commentary on modern politics. Nor does it really comment on who’s in the right or wrong in the actions taken by the movie’s characters. And it’s here that the film’s biggest problems lie. Without a “side” to be on, without anyone to root for — we don’t even really root for Balian, as he seems to be something of a wienie, hero-wise — we in the audience are in the odd position of rooting for compromise. Not quite “father of a murdered son, husband of a murdered wife” stuff in terms of providing excitement and motivation.

Kingdom of Heaven is fraught with ambivalence. The movie’s creators themselves seem so desperate to not say what they clearly believe — that the Crusades were stupid and their organizers either deluded or corrupt or both — that they say nothing, do nothing that might ignite passions of any kind. The movie therefore leaves us with a hazy tale of war and an unconvincing romance.

From the history-geek standpoint, Kingdom of Heaven is an entertaining examination of a period of history generally left to the status of backstory for the latest Robin Hood remake. But as a movie-goer, the actual on-screen story is a little to tepid.

- Amy Diaz

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