The Kingdom: Heaven. The judge: Appellate Judge Erick Harper. The page boy: Orlando Bloom.
Our review of Kingdom Of Heaven: Four-Disc Director's Cut, published May 15th, 2006, is also available.
A better world than has ever been seen. A kingdom of conscience. A kingdom of Heaven.
Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Mel Gibson's Braveheart are the two films most responsible for the rebirth of the historical epic in its modern form. Now, Scott returns to the genre by tackling one of the most fertile periods in history for such stories of adventure—the Crusades.
Facts of the Case
Balian (Orlando Bloom, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Black Hawk Down), a humble blacksmith, mourns the loss of his beloved wife and child. His long-lost illegitimate father, a knight known as Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson, Schindler's List, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Rob Roy) appears in the midst of his grief to offer new opportunity in this life and salvation in the next: he desires Balian to join him in Jerusalem on Crusade.
The humble blacksmith, soon a knight and the heir to his father's barony in the Holy Land, finds himself enmeshed in the politics of the court of Baldwin IV, the leper king of the Crusader state. His unfailing honor and courage lead him to become the defender of Jerusalem in the face of escalating conflicts with the equally chivalrous Muslim hero Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).
Kingdom of Heaven is another of Ridley Scott's masterfully assembled spectacles, albeit one that failed to connect with audiences as successfully as his previous epics. This is due in part to a general sense of fatigue with epic battles. It's only been a decade since Braveheart rewrote the book on cinematic mass carnage; after the contributions of Peter Jackson, Wolfgang Petersen, Antoine Fuqua, and Scott himself, massive ancient battles—one of the chief selling points of the genre—all start to look alike.
Another problem with Kingdom of Heaven is the casting of the lead. Orlando Bloom has matured considerably as an actor in the past few years, but he's simply not Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson. He plays Balian with deadly earnestness and sincerity and does quite well when he's the sole focus of the camera, but runs into trouble when he must share the screen with actors of any significant stature. He is consistently overshadowed by supporting players such as Marton Csokas (The Great Raid, Kangaroo Jack), Jeremy Irons (The Mission, Die Hard with a Vengeance), or Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Troy).
Even Ridley Scott's vaunted visual style seems a bit hamstrung. Sir Ridley captures striking visuals to be sure, but his over-use of quick cuts and other editing sleight-of-hand often robs his compositions of their power. He doesn't yet come close to Michael Bay's overuse of quick cutting, but it can be frustrating, especially for those of us accustomed to taking time during a Scott film to sit back and simply enjoy the beautiful images. Fight scenes suffer as well. Scott has wisely abandoned the extreme shaky-cam technique that has plagued so many films—including his Oscar-winning Gladiator—since the late 1990s. On the other hand, he has adopted new stylistic conceits that hamper the effectiveness of such scenes. The aforementioned quick cutting is a problem, as is his penchant for using over- or under-cranked footage, for example speeding up or slowing down the action just as a weapon strike is about to make contact with its target.
On the other hand, there is very little disappointing about Fox's DVD of Kingdom of Heaven. This two-disc set continues Ridley Scott's winning streak as one of the most DVD-friendly directors working today. The second disc contains the meatiest bits, such as the "Interactive Production Grid." Really just a gimmicky interface, the grid nonetheless gives the viewer access to over two hours of featurettes dealing with pre-production, production, and post-production from one of three perspectives: director, crew, or cast. These featurettes are satisfyingly informative and reveal the massive industrial operation required to make a film of this scale. A pair of basic cable documentaries come next: episodes of A&E's Movie Real and The History Channel's Hollywood vs. History. Each running in the 40-45 minute range, these programs examine the historical basis for the people, events, places, weapons, and so forth featured in Kingdom of Heaven. Both contain a lot of interesting background information, although they are probably a little too gentle in their analysis of the film's approach to history. Also on Disc Two are four short featurettes originally found on the film's official site, and a theatrical trailer.
Meanwhile, back on the feature disc, there is a Fox Inside Look at the currently in production Tristan & Isolde which is being directed by Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). It only runs for two minutes, but it has whetted my appetite for this 2006 release. The other special feature on Disc One is a text commentary. This is similar in concept to the text commentaries Paramount has put on their special editions of the Star Trek films. There are some key differences, however. While the Paramount version has only a line or two of text where subtitles would normally be found, this Fox version features lengthy blocks of text set in its own banner shaped like an elongated Maltese cross. This is fine but it does tend to block between one fourth and one third of the screen. Also, the text commentary presents such a volume of information that it is often difficult to read everything posted on the screen at any given time before something new comes up. It presents an impressive amount of information, although it is only occasionally scene-specific and tends to get bogged down in arcane names, dates, and trivia about 11th Century court politics. Finally, I found it quite annoying that apparently no one had bothered to proofread the information before slapping it on the DVD—the text commentary is riddled with typos, glaring grammatical errors, and the like.
Fox presents Kingdom of Heaven in a breathtaking 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that seems almost totally free of any digital gremlins. Color fidelity is right on the mark, and scenes from the snowy forests of France to the deserts of Palestine and the fires of Balian's forge delight the eyes. The audio comes in two English options, a DTS 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. As far as I'm concerned, Ridley Scott films are the reason DTS mixes were invented in the first place, and this one is as good as any I've heard, especially in the heat of battle with arrows whizzing past and trebuchets unloading their projectiles in the direction of Jerusalem's city walls.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the pleasant surprises about Kingdom of Heaven, and probably a key in its box office drubbing, is its thoughtful, ambivalent approach to the conflict between Christians and Muslims. Scott and screenwriter William Monahan resist any easy moralizing or the temptation to paint sides in the conflict as either the good guys or the bad guys. Balian is nominally a Christian and a Crusader, but he has largely lost his faith. His resulting lack of zeal for the Christian project in the Holy Land causes him, more than any other character, to behave the way a Christian actually should: acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly. While other Crusaders spout religious rhetoric and claim that God wills them to fight and guarantees their victory, Balian and a few other noble characters actually conduct themselves in a way that Christ might have approved of. He does not lust after battle and conquest as do most of the knights in the film; he fights only when necessary to protect the lives of innocents. In truth, he has more in common with the similarly thoughtful Muslim ruler and military genius Saladin than he does with most of the purported Christians of the Crusader state. Scott's balanced approach was probably a factor in the film's box office failure, but leaves us with a much more interesting and rewarding tale.
Kingdom of Heaven is an enjoyable film that should have done better at the box office than it did. No one combines big, loud historical action with thoughtful plotting and complex characters they way Ridley Scott can.
Not guilty! Despite a few minor missteps, Sir Ridley Scott once again delivers what he does best: a big, loud, thrilling period piece geared towards the thoughtful film lover. This DVD edition from Fox does the film justice, although an audio commentary from Scott is sorely missed.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• The Pilgrim's Guide -- Text Commentary
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