I cannot begin to tell you how hard it is to give this movie a bad grade considering it is visually stunning and the acting is some of the best you will see this summer. Unfortunately, Kingdom of Heaven seems to leave out key character building sequences, rushing through storylines, simply in an effort to get to the grand battle scene at the end, which leaves us watching pointless action considering our detachment from the characters involved.
Ridley Scott has given us such amazing films as the first Alien and Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven is right up there as far as the visual aesthetics go, but when it comes to pacing this story of the Crusades simply doesn’t measure up as there may have been too much story for one movie to hold in an acceptable length of time.
We begin our journey as we are introduced to Balian (Orlando Bloom), a young blacksmith who has just suffered a tragic loss of his child followed by his wife’s suicide. He is left alone with his work when a visit from a group of Crusaders trot into town, among them Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), not only a highly regarded baron but Balian’s father to boot.
At his father’s request Balian joins in the journey back to the fabled Holy City of Jerusalem, on the way teaching him to fight. The bonding session soon ends however as the group is ambushed leaving Ibelin mortally wounded and Balian only days away from assuming control of his father’s land. It is worth mentioning that Neeson commands your attention and delivers the most memorable performance of the film despite the fact he is only in approximately 15 minutes of it. His role as a baron and a knight are infinitely believable and his exit from the story is felt throughout.
The impending lordship Balian is to take on enters him into a world he never imagined as he soon finds himself in the lap of excellence at the table of the leprous Christian king, Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), Baldwin’s sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), her husband, a savage war monger Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), Guy’s war whore sidekick Reynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) and his majesty’s aid Tiberias (Jeremy Irons).
Among these greater powers Balian seems like the black sheep, a man in a world he doesn’t know and Bloom carries off this portion of his role without any effort at all, it is as he rises to fame that his performance begins to wane as Bloom’s ability seems to play better as a supporting character rather than a knight leading an army to war.
The confrontation found in Kingdom comes as Guy and Reynald continue their relentless butchering of the Saracens on the open land, provoking Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) to forgo his restraint and come to war. It is here that Balian is forced to prove his worth as Reynald’s castle at Chatillon is in the middle of Saladin’s path to glory in his journey to regain Jerusalem for the Muslims. It is here that Balian and his small army hold off a first wave of attackers to protect the people of Chatillon, ultimately earning him praise by the people and Baldwin himself.
From here the continuing arrogance of Guy and Reynold soon earn Balian the opportunity to defend the walls of Jerusalem against a foe that seems more than up to the challenge.
With a running time of nearly two and a half hours you would think Scott would have had more than enough time to flush out all the storylines mentioned above, but rumor of a four hour cut that will see its way to DVD is said to expand on the much-too-short father-son relationship Balian and Ibelin should have had on top of the almost inexplicable romantic connection between Sibylla and Balian as she more-or-less offers herself to Balian as some sort of welcoming gift.
While four hours certainly seems like a long time it is worth remembering that Return of the King ran for three hours and 20 minutes and earned rave reviews and Kingdom of Heaven would have certainly improved if it had spent, or had, more time to build characters and relationships rather than offering up grand battle sequences, considering it is the connection to the characters that we need in order to care about their impending doom or victory in any situation where their lives are at stake.
Unfortunately, here we know what both sides of the wall are fighting for but we don’t ultimately care in the end result, but I am sure Bill Monahan wrote it all in the script, which is grand considering it is his first, and gave several key characters the chance to shine. I guess we will have to wait to truly judge when the extended cut hits home video.