Saturday, May 07, 2005

REVIEW: Kingdom of Heaven

An important distinction must be made, when discussing films based on events of history, between a film that is "history," i.e. one that makes a concerted effort to occupy and visualize a specific period in time not our own; and one that is "historical allegory," i.e. one that is set in a historical period but is actually designed to offer up a 'lesson' for our current time. As you may or may not realize, almost NO films can really qualify as "history," or even try. Almost all of our historical films are, in fact, historical allegory, and "Kingdom of Heaven" is no different.

It's especially important, in this case, to keep all that in mind amid all the swirling "controversy" of this film's portrayal of the Crusades (or more precisely the portrayal of Muslims during the Crusades.) The film indeed recreates more-or-less accurately what we can safely assume the era looked and felt like, it's not truly concerned with doing a similar job of recreating the additudes, feelings or even actual speaking-styles of the characters in the same way: these aren't "medieval characters," rather they are mirror-images for various types of people and veiwpoints in today's Western/Islamic clash transported to the similar clash of yesterday in order to make points and explore ideas from a safe distance.

I mean this distinction not as a criticism, since for the use of allegory to "invalidate" "Kingdom of Heaven" would mean that almost all other historical films ever produced would be similarly invalidated. It's merely an observation, made in the interest of helping us all to view this film objectively beyond all the media histrionics over whom it's more or less "fair" to.

In "Kingdom's" imagining of this period of the Crusades (the first fall of Jerusalem to Saladdin,) the city of Jerusalem is preserved in tri-religious quasi-truce between Christian, Muslim and Jew by the will of it's Christian lords King Baldwin the Leper (Edward Norton) and Tiberius (Jeremy Irons.) Muslim king Saladdin seeks to recapture the city (lost to the Christians over 100 years worth of Crusading ago) but seems to favor something resembling diplomacy rather than the open holy war and slaughter of infidels demanded by his soldiers and subjects. On the Christian side, the religious-zealot order of The Knights Templar (led by Brendan Gleeson as Renault de Chatillon) are covertly causing havoc in order to undermine the staunchly-secular Baldwin and provoke the open war on the Muslims which they believe their God has demanded.

In other words, the "thesis" of the film's setup is that conflicts of states and men would be far less savage and terrible if said conflicts were left to statesmen, and that the weilding of political power instead by zealots of organized religion almost never serves to do anything but make these affairs bloodier, more protracted and more pointless. This is, I think, an astute and admirable position to stake... but it is just every-so-slightly out of place in the larger context of the Crusades. History would tell that the film is both entirely too hard on and entirely not hard enough on all the characters, affording a political and social complexity to an age of mutual barabarism cloaked in varying illusions of chivalry and faith. Again, though, this film isn't really about the Crusades as they were but instead the Crusades as they can be slightly-reconcieved in order to make a "larger" point.

The hero of the peice is Balin, (Orlando Bloom,) who believes himself a humble blacksmith Crusading in the vein hope of earning absolution for a deceased loved one but finds himself heir to a Knightly legacy that makes him the Baron of a small community of peasants and the eventual protector of Jerusalem itself when the Templars' troublemaking bears the expected fruit. Balin and his allies are, for the purposes of the story, enlightened secular-humanists striving to help "the people" weather the whims of faith-based warfare: His "community" is a rough serfdom of Christians, Jews and Muslims who are content to live and work in harmony until the religious fundamentalists on both sides ruin everything.

So too it is with Saladdin, here shown as a strong and violent but also intelligent and honorable warrior who seems burdened by the religious aspects of his job. Just as Balin finds heroism in rejecting organized Christianity in favor of a humanistic code of defense of the defenseless, Saladdin is openly annoyed by the insinuation that the Muslim victories are mandated by God (it's a nice touch in the way of drawing-paralells that when the Muslim characters are "speaking English they translate 'God' rather than just saying 'Allah',) rather than won by his leadership and his men's bravery.

It takes a good director to make such occasionally heavy-handed themes work as a film, and Ridely Scott is such a director. The film is beautiful to look at, has wonderful action scenes and is full of fine actors doing top-tier work. On a technical level, the affair is largely flawless if a touch on the routine side: There are no real "whoa!" kills or action beats, and sadly it appears that those who feared that "Return of The King" had put the ultimate cap on seige-of-the-castle scenes were dead right: Much like the similar seige-scenes in "Troy," there's a sense of been-there, seen-this in the otherwise finely executed attack and defense motions that form the final act of the film. Bloom, getting his first real shot at a leading-man role here, aquits himself nicely especially when sharing the screen with titans of the genre like Gleeson, Irons and a cameo'd Liam Neeson.

It's unfortunate, then, that the film has a serious pacing problem. Simply put, this is an EPIC story with big ideas, lots of interconnecting lines of plot and lots of characters, and it needs room to breathe. Two and a half hours just doesn't cut it, and you can feel the film straining against the running-time. Big scene follows big scene, reveal follows reveal, grand characters and introduced and dispatched, and theres just not enough "down time" in between. This film is as much about character loyalties, politics and procedure as it is about it's battles, and it needed the slowly-unfolding canvas of "Braveheart" instead of the rapid action-adventure pace that seems to have been forced on it.

The greatest casualty of this is Gleeson, who gives a knockout performance as the Templar leader who is more-or-less the outright "villain" of the peice. (Saladdin is relegated to the role of the enigmatic warrior-king as opposed to a full-on baddie.) It's a great turn and a great character, and he's gone too soon leaving a BIG void.

There's a great film (here's hoping for a director's cut DVD) in here, and once the middle of the 2nd act rolls around it really starts to take shape and get cooking... but it's an almost, not a slam-dunk. When the history of such things is written, "Kingdom of Heaven" will get the necessary credit for being the first film to use The Crusades as a metaphor for exploring the modern post-911 political world, but it may not eventually remain the best.