Movie Review: 'Kingdom of Heaven'

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3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" sets fire to the Earth, dares the heavens and almost wins.

Based on a lesser-known episode of the Crusades, Scott's new film traces the rise of a fictionalized French knight, Balian (Orlando Bloom), during an uneasy peace between the European rulers of Jerusalem and the Saracen general Saladin, a lull that ends violently at the film's climax. The movie treads through a minefield of cultural-political controversies—including the current schisms between Christianity and Islam—to craft a gargantuan epic, a historical adventure-drama of overwhelming visual grandeur.

Grandeur, of course, is what you expect from Scott, the director of "Blade Runner," "Gladiator," "White Squall" and "Black Hawk Down." And he's made a movie of really astonishing pictorial sweep and detail—filled with vast panoramas of battle and sometimes staggering re-creations of late 12th Century France, Palestine and Jerusalem.

From the misty, blue-green French forests of "Heaven's" spooky opening to the searing sands of its Holy Land sequences, to the final, hellish vistas that, with a prodigality that recalls D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance," show the walls of Jerusalem blasted and breached, "Kingdom of Heaven" rains down riches from the screen. Even when the drama falters, the movie shimmers with palatial splendor, explodes with adventure and reeks with bloodshed and horror.

It's also peopled with interesting characters, sterling heroism and cruel villainy. Some of the ensemble are based on the actual historical figures; some are entirely fictional. Some are mixtures, like the pretty-boy hero protagonist: tormented knight Balian (played with open-eyed boyishness by Orlando Bloom of "Lord of the Rings"). Balian begins as a provincial French blacksmith before running afoul of the local clergy, committing a murder and learning he's the illegitimate son of famed knight Godfrey (Liam Neeson), who beckons him to the Crusades and possible redemption.

British writer William Monahan creates Balian as both a heroic knight battling his imperfections, like Lancelot, and that familiar type from French literature, the "young man from the provinces," who tries to conquer the city and the world beyond. And conquer it Balian seems to, with incredible, unnerving speed: riding off with dad Godfrey, enduring ambush, shipwreck and swordplay, and finally reaching Jerusalem—where, with amazing ease, he rises to the battlements of history.

Well, things like this tend to happen in historical movie epics. A man named Balian, in historical fact, was the commander of the European forces inside Jerusalem in the battle Scott and company stage for us. But the rest, of course, is a romantic concoction—including Balian's almost-love affair with beauteous princess Sybilla (a sly job by Eva Green) and his instant and film-long enmity with her reckless and over-ambitious husband, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Czokas).

Sybilla and Guy really existed, and so did Jerusalem's King Baldwin IV (a magical piece by Edward Norton), a gentle soul whose silver mask conceals a face rotting with leprosy. So, of course, did the all-conquering Saladin (compellingly played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) and brutal Reynald (done with fine brutishness by Ireland's Brendan Gleeson)—who, with doltish De Lusignan, triggers disastrous conflict. And there are characters in the film who seem real: Jeremy Irons' wise counselor Tiberias or David Thewlis' sardonic gadfly, Hospitaler, and the others.

Scott and Monahan (and Scott's brilliant cinematographer, John Mathieson) strive to make something like "Lawrence of Arabia": a gorgeously shot anti-war battle epic. The mix of historical fact and romantic fantasy may alienate some viewers; others may be affronted by the sympathy accorded to Saladin and his Islamic troops.

Though "Kingdom of Heaven" is the sort of historical spectacle that some critics love to hate (see "Troy" or Oliver Stone's "Alexander"), the film is justified by its pictorial richness. If the film sometimes feels dramatically sketchy, that may be because it's not all there. Scott insists that the "correct" version of "Heaven" is not this 145-minute theatrical release but the 220-plus-minute cut he'll eventually release on DVD. I wouldn't recommend waiting, though. "Kingdom of Heaven," like most movie epics, will never look as good as it does in a theater.

The odysseys of knights have thrilled audiences for centuries—ever since the actual Crusades, in fact. But we've rarely seen epics with the scope, beauty and storms of action we get here. And though life may give us more believable people (characters were never Scott's strong suit, "Thelma and Louise" to the contrary), only a movie like "Kingdom of Heaven" can place us on the walls of Jerusalem as they crumble. Only a moviemaker like Scott can take us where the camera turns history into romance and the catapults and war engines turn earth into hell. It's a war film that tries to sue for peace, less history than a dream of history, filtered through remembered films, the present and a dimly recaptured past.

MPAA rating: R (for strong violence and epic warfare).

'Kingdom of Heaven'

Directed and produced by Ridley Scott; written by William Monahan; photographed by John Mathieson; edited by Dody Dorn; production designed by Arthur Max; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; special effects and prosthetics supervisor Neil Corbould; visual effects supervisor Wesley Sewell; executive producers Branko Lustig, Lisa Ellzey, Terry Needham. A 20th Century Fox release of a Scott Free production; opens Friday. Running time: 2:25.

Balian - Orlando Bloom

Sibylla - Eva Green

Tiberias - Jeremy Irons

Hospitaler - David Thewlis

Reynald - Brendan Gleeson

Guy de Lusignan - Marton Csokas

Godfrey - Liam Neeson

King Baldwin - Edward Norton

Saladin - Ghassan Massoud

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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