When it comes to movies, timing may not be everything but it does play a part. Back in 2000, time was on Ridley Scott’s side with “Gladiator”. The ancient Roman epic suffered from a desperate need of editing and some of the worst dialogue of the year, but had a solid story at its heart, great performances, and quality production values steered by Scott’s sure fire direction. The result was a much beloved Oscar-winning epic that helped resurrect the seemingly dead genre of ancient epics.
Cut to six years later, almost to the day in fact, and Scott is back with “Kingdom of Heaven” – another ancient epic. This time though its set around a later and somewhat murkier point in history – the Crusades and the war between Christians and Muslims over Jerusalem. Like “Gladiator”, “Kingdom” is meticulously constructed with awe-inspiring battle scenes, a solid supporting cast and atmospheric visuals that beautifully convey the period. However, whereas “Gladiator” was seen as a rallying cry to re-open a genre long thought dead, “Kingdom” will serve as the final nail in its newly minted coffin.
A lot of that isn’t Scott’s fault but rather the industry in general. “Gladiator” may have restarted the trend to do ancient epics but “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy perfected it and set the bar so high that it has proven impossible to reach for at least a while. So, much like the late 90’s trend with horror movies and the current craze for superhero movies – the one or two big successes have been followed by a glut of dull clones that audiences have rejected and fatigue has settled in.
Last year in particular saw various historical epics battle for audience – most notably “King Arthur”, “Troy” and “Alexander”. Scott’s “Kingdom” is a far more polished and professional looking creation than any of those but is just as cold, long and dull to watch. “Troy” had a far more interesting story at its heart and at least took itself with a bit of tounge in cheek fun – it didn’t set out to be the ultimate epic, rather a modern update of those bodice ripping epics of the 40’s & 50’s and on that front it succeeded. Hell, for all its difficulties Oliver Stone took chances with his “Alexander”, trying out all sorts of things that, whilst failing for the most part, at least never took the easy path.
It’s easy to say “Kingdom” is a more accomplished affair than any of 2004’s “terrible trio” because from a filmmakers standpoint it is by far – the CG and battle effects are for the most part flawless (certainly far smoother than those in “Gladiator”) and the film has all the grandeur that $140 million can buy and unlike “Troy”, it actually looks like most of the money ended up going on screen. Yet in the end it just doesn’t connect with or hold our interest as an audience for a variety of reasons aside from the “we have seen all of this before” complaint.
First is William Monahan’s script. On the one hand praise should be laden for its historical accuracy and efforts to focus not on the bloodshed or differences between Christians & Muslims, but rather what unites them. Religious differences have been responsible for far too much death in the world and the film adequately condemns military campaigns in the name of God or the Church as well as portraying the Crusades essentially for what they were – attempts at obtaining geographical and economic domination rather than fighting in the name of a theological ideal.
The trouble with this approach though is that it paints an all too romantic picture of the time – both sides are portrayed as thoughtful and intelligent people reluctantly forced into war, rather than agenda-driven fanatics which makes for richer characters but undermines the historical crediblity. In fact the most sympathetic characters are the non-believers or those who at least know how to question their beliefs and make religion a part of their lives rather than letting it dominate them.
Strike two is against the editing. It is clearly very obvious that the original cut of the film clocked in at around three hours or more and so with a good 30-45 minutes of scenes missing, the film feels very choppy – especially towards the later pre-siege scenes. Eva Green’s Sibylla most notably suffers from an all to abrupt motivational about-face, whilst other small roles ranging from David Thewlis to Marton Csokas are simply underdone.
Then comes the lead. Scott has done the trick that was used with Ben Affleck in “The Sum of All Fears” – take a young pretty boy for the leading role and surround him secret service style with a group of true acting veterans to hopefully hide his inexperience as a lead. Bloom, like Affleck, does have charisma and talent that works fine in supporting roles but he’s still young and has yet to prove he can serve as a dramatic lead. Even if he’s equipped with an extra 20 pounds of muscle which is shown off for all of two seconds (and looks to have only given him bigger breasts than a Hooters waitress), its a heavy burden to be the centre of a movie let alone carry a large scale serious adult film like this.
He doesn’t prove it either on screen, but a lot of that lies in the character itself which has no real depth behind it – going from a faithless blacksmith to a noble do-gooder whom we know will ultimately succeed within the film’s first 15 minutes. Thus the remainder is spent following through on that sudden switch with no surprises or testing of faith in between. As a result the character is cold and very hard to fall behind because we don’t feel like he’s striving for anything, but rather playing out an already pre-ordained role.
Not helping is the range of good actors inhabiting other flat roles. Csokas and Gleeson have literally transported their villain roles from “XXX” and “Troy” into their one-dimensional corrupt knight characters. Neeson has become the ‘go to’ man for the role of mentors training young men to fight who get killed off early in the run, and this is no different. Green is an interesting looking and exotic leading lady but the aforementioned editing leaves her Lady Macbeth style character almost floating around aimlessly after the inevitable (and all too short) love scene with Orlando.
Better are some of the more understated parts. Jeremy Irons at last turns the ‘over the top’ switch off and delivers a cool and collected part as the tired but loyal Tiberias. For their little screen time both David Thewlis and Alexander Siddig have strong small roles as loyal servants to their respective kings. The kings themselves are both beautifully played if somewhat all too politically correct. On the one hand Ghassan Massoud portrays Muslim King Saladin with intelligence, fierceness and a strong sense of humanity. On the other Edward Norton, covered always in a silver mask and doing a convincing Marlon Brando impression, portrays the leper King of Jerusalem with dignity, apathy and fire.
The crew have done a technically astonishing job. The cinematography is lush, the production design fabulous, costuming, visual effects, and Harry Gregson-Williams solemn score are all top notch. Its just ultimately a shame that the end result is such a flat piece. It’s a good film and very well made but the ‘battle epic’ fatigue has definitely settled in and the truncated runtime has knobbled it at the knees. This is one of those movies that a few years down the line would be great to revisit – especially in the longer cut form. For now though it’s a flawed gem – an ordinary piece that sparkles once in a while.