While Ridley Scott was busy filling THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, his saga of the Crusades, with sweeping vistas of warfare, oceans of soldiers bent on carnage, and forests of siege engines gliding purposefully towards embattled Jerusalem, he forgot to add a story that would engross an audience. Or even work up a ripple in interest. Instead of a salient, dare one hope provocative, commentary on the current state of affairs in the Holy Land, or even a rousing good adventure story, it is ponderous and pretentious with nothing to say and over two hours in which not to say it.
At its center is Balian (Orlando Bloom), a village blacksmith for whom formal religion became problematical when his wife committed suicide and the local priest consigned her to hell. And stole her necklace. Balian is also, as it turns out, the less than legitimate offspring of a Crusader nobleman (Liam Neeson), who has returned from the Holy Land to find him and whisk him thither. It is that newly acquired ecumenical worldview that will come in handy when Balian begins to negotiate the tricky world of Holy Land politics and intrigue. It will also lead to a nice speech towards the end about the current generation’s responsibility for its predecessors. A speech that should have been a resounding beat throughout the film, but, alas, isn’t.
His ecumenicalism will serve him less well with the leprous King of Jerusalem’s seductive sister, Sybilla (Eva Green), She’s the wife of his nemesis, Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, chewing scenery and having the only good time of the bunch), an ambitious man who longs to break the truce the King has kept with the legendary Saracen leader Saladin, and to begin a suicidal war, the consequences of which he and his cohorts are blissfully oblivious to.
Of all the characters presented, the most interesting is the King (Edward Norton), who dresses in white and hides his disease behind an enigmatic silver mask. It’s the costume that’s interesting, though. He, like everyone else, speaks in didactic epigrams. His are about duty and honor and righteousness declaimed to Balian, who is, perhaps, supposed to look awe-struck. Bloom, reedy and intense wears a pall of melancholy throughout and never shows any real emotion, even when in the heat of battle, or in the heat of a distinctly passionless seduction and coupling with dusky-eyed Sybilla. For her part, beyond the squint that signals sensuality, there is little to her aside from being pointlessly willful and a stunning fickleness. Even Jeremy Irons as a court advisor seems on the point of taking a nap.
The fact is that while a great deal happens on screen from moment to moment on the Crusader side of things, very little of it makes sense as far as motivations or character development. The bad guys are very, very evil, and the good guys are very, very noble and nobody has the sense that God gave geese. The Saracens want their city back. The tension that should arise between a perfect knight, Balian, and the debased nobles who came to Jersusalem in search of power while under the cover of wanting to liberate Christ’s tomb from the infidel never gets off the ground. While Balian has unaccountably gone from blacksmith to polymath with no explanation, he is never more than shortsighted and simple when it comes to negotiating the real world. Things are no less subtle on the grander scale, with Scott staging a meeting between the King and Saladin with the King in angelic white and the Saracen in avenging black. That with his hooked nose he looks like a caricature straight from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is worth noting with distaste.
THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN drags along to an ending that means as little as all that came before it. And with as little coherence. In a criminal waste of opportunity, issues of religious fanaticism as the root of all trouble are barely touched upon. There seems to have been a message of some sort beyond the one about religion being a bad idea that is hammered home with the artfulness of a jackhammer at regular intervals, but it’s buried so deeply within the murky depths of Scott’s shadowy vision that it’s all but lost. Just like the audience that tries to make sense of it all.