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In the year 1184, a village blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) retreats into a dark state of disillusionment after the deaths of his wife and child. Feeling truly lost, he travels to the Holy Land in order to find peace. Once there, Balian soon finds himself assuming his fatherís place as the leader of the French army, in a fight to protect the city of Jerusalem.
PLEASE NOTE: The following review will focus on the DIRECTORíS CUT of the film. There is no doubt that this version, as originally conceived, is the better one. The differences between the two cuts are like night and day; characters are now fully developed, subplots are now fully illuminated...it truly is an entirely different and vastly superior film. As far as Iím concerned, the theatrical cut no longer exists.
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is set during the Crusades, that bloody time in history when a slew of European monarchs invaded Jerusalem because they felt it needed to be conquered. We follow Bloomís Balian to a Holy Land that is teetering on the edge of war. A tentative truce has been established between the Muslim king Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and the French king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton). However, there are some Knights on the French side who do not want peace because they feel that the people of Jerusalem should be converted, not cooperated with.
I admire the way that there are heroes and villains on BOTH sides of the conflict. Actually, now that I think of it, the only true villains of the film are actually on the French side; namely, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and his right hand man Reynald de Chatillon (the great Brendan Gleeson), who are conspiring to start the aforementioned holy war. Saladin and his generals are presented as sensible, honorable men, and are not just empty cardboard "towel heads," as some movies have portrayed their race in the past. In fact, there is actually a lot going on thematically in KOH...the different facets of religious devotion, using "God's will" as an easy way out, and honor among adversaries, to name a few. The filmís villains and heroes may not be clearly defined at times, but its themes certainly are. In fact, the last two dialogue exchanges in the film serve as the perfect punctuation marks for an incredibly well thought out script.
Upon repeat viewings, Iíve realized that every character exists in this film in order to further develop Balian and his inner journey. Every person he encounters teaches him something about his past, his undiscovered courage, or his own self-worth. Itís truly a masterful display of screenwriting...which should come as no surprise, seeing as the writer of this film is William Monahan, who went on to write THE DEPARTED. In particular, Edward Norton and Liam Neeson serve as father figures for Balian (Neeson plays his actual biological father). They truly lead by example, and their important life lessons help Balian come back into the spiritual light, so to speak. Eva Green plays Sibylla, sister to Nortonís King Baldwin, and the fact that Balian grows to love her truly proves that all is not lost, even when it seems to be. This film does an outstanding job at exploring its central protagonist.
However, most surprising of all was Orlando Bloom. I didn't think he could anchor a movie on his own. Let's face it; nothing he has done so far has actually depended on him to carry it along. Not to mention that he has basically played the same character (i.e. the stoic young warrior) in almost every film heís been in; he hasnít exactly displayed a wide range. Until I saw him here, I was sort of convinced that he was a bland screen presence; the only reason he stood out as Legolas in the LORD OF THE RINGS was because he was always given some crazy badass stuff to do, not because of his performance. Now, Bloom certainly doesn't break new ground in KOH, and he does indeed play yet another stoic warrior, but it is nevertheless a performance that fits the film. He makes for a fine center to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. I, at least, bought him as the leader he eventually grows into over the course of the story.
The technical aspects of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN are as praiseworthy as its creative aspects. The cinematography in particular is a sight to behold. I think that's a given, seeing as Ridley Scott is one of the top visual artists in the game. Every scene was just plain gorgeous to look at...from the swirling snowflakes of the France-set opening, to the orange sands of Jerusalem. It is, without a doubt, visually stunning, which is a quality one can attribute to all of Scottís films, starting from the very beginning of his career.
Now, donít go thinking that this movie is all talk. There are several set pieces here that should satisfy your inner action junkie. The battle scenes in this movie are extremely well done...especially the final siege and the first small skirmish in the French woods. Yet, I couldn't help but compare them to the LORD OF THE RINGS. It seems as if Peter Jackson has made it impossible to watch a cinematic battle outside of his trilogy ever again. LOTR has planted a huge, unreachable bar right smack in the middle of the medieval/swordplay genre, and I'm afraid that it will never be reached. But, I like to judge every movie on its own merits, and the battles in KOH are nonetheless spectacular. Simply put, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is one of the best films of its kind. Maybe it's just my love for this particular genre speaking, and you will find it boring, considering that a lot of BIG MEDIEVAL EPICS have been released over the past decade. But, I think you will ultimately embrace this film for the wonder it is. With Ridley Scott, you usually can't go wrong, and that's certainly the case here. I hope that with enough time and hindsight, the disappointing release of the theatrical cut will be forgotten, and this version of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN will rightfully take its place as one of Ridley Scottís finest masterpieces.