Thursday, June 02, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven / **** (R)

Balian: Orlando Bloom
Godfrey: Liam Neeson
Hospitalier: David Thewlis
Guy de Lusignan: Marton Csokas
King Baldwin: Edward Norton
Sibylla: Eva Green
Reynald: Brendan Gleeson
Tiberias: Jeremy Irons
Saladin: Ghassan Massoud

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film produced and directed by Ridley Scott. Written by William Monahan. Running time: 145 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence and epic warfare).

What man is a man who does not to make the world better?

This is the sentiment written on the rafter of a blacksmith’s workshop in France. It is the 12th century and Europe has been involved in a Holy Crusade, at war with Muslims over the holy land of Jerusalem for over 100 years. The Crusades have become a mission for any man trying to find any sort of purpose during these dark ages. Godfrey of Ilbelin returns from Jerusalem on his own mission to make peace with his God and find the son who doesn’t even know him. The blacksmith is Balian, the son who doesn’t know his father, nor does he think his God knows him; yet rarely a man has understood the heavenly charge scrawled on his rafter better than he.

Kingdom of Heaven is a war epic directed by Gladiator helmer Ridley Scott. Scott’s faith driven battle epic avoids the muddled down histrionics of other recent period epics, such as Troy and Alexander, by taking a hard focus on the hero Balian and his own personal journey. The screenplay by William Monahan, his first produced screenplay with three others fast on its heels to come including the fourth Jurassic Park adventure, imbues Balian with more depth of character than Gladiator’s Maximus, driving the emotional level of the battles and the entire picture to match Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

Despite a cold reception of Godfrey when Balian first learns of his origins, Balian soon joins his father for the journey back to Jerusalem. Any apprehension Balian feels toward his once estranged father is quickly diminished when Godfrey’s band of warriors defends Balian’s freedom against sheriffs sent to arrest the blacksmith on rightful charges of murdering a priest.
In the film’s most gruesome and intimate battle sequence a number of Godfrey’s soldiers give their lives for Godfrey’s own right to his son and Balian’s freedom. The devotion of Godfrey’s men and the sudden brutal endings to lives forged for the sole purpose of battle paint a startling picture of the times depicted. It is amazing such prudence of purpose could produce such horrific madness in practice. Perhaps this philosophy of life is best personified by the group’s Hospitalier, played by David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) with his typical sagely delivery. He sees to the wounded with harsh words of how to remain alive, yet fights with the same skill and devotion alongside them. Liam Neeson (Kinsey) also brings grace and honor to his role as the noble knight Godfrey.

Orlando Bloom finally blossoms into a true hero with his role as Balian. No longer is he merely the sexy youngster swashbuckler who wins favor with his smooth skin and sweet smile in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Lord of the Rings; in fact, I don’t think he does smile in the first hour of this two and a half hour epic. Nor is he the insipid whiny wimp who brought about the destruction of Troy by somehow winning the heart of the most beautiful woman of the time. Kingdom of Heaven is Bloom’s passage into manhood, and what a man he has become. There was a point when the selflessness of his character’s actions in this story actually forced me to say under my breath, “Wow! What a hero!” This hero is the rarest of heroes, a man who acts solely to make the world a better place.

Upon his arrival in the holy city, he finds himself in service to Jerusalem’s monarch, King Baldwin. Edward Norton (The Italian Job) turns the thankless role of the perpetually masked leper king into an amazingly nuanced performance despite the expressionless mask. The legendary, now aged, Tiberias, a gravel throated Jeremy Irons (Being Julia), sees the goodness and potential of Balian in the political structure of the region. Tiberias observes that for all of Balian’s natural nobility, “Jerusalem has no need for a perfect knight.” Baldwin and Tiberias have forged a fragile truce between the Christian occupants of Jerusalem and the equable Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud); a truce the Templar leaders, the war mongering Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, The Village) and the crown seeking Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy), are itching to break.

Guy: “Give me a war.”

Reynald (dancing around like a fairy sprinkling magical dust): “That’s what I do.”

There is also a slight love story that enters into the mix with Sibylla (Eva Green, The Dreamers), wife to Guy, sister of Baldwin. Balian’s values appeal to this woman trapped in an arranged marriage to her tyrannical husband. An adulterous love scene threatens to stain Balian’s perfection, but when offered more by the King himself, Balian’s response shows his belief in the sanctimony of holy marriage. Although the affair could be considered a flaw in the evolution of this character, I saw it as more of a glimpse that Balian truly is human, with natural human desires and temptations.

I have no idea how historically accurate this story is, and frankly I don’t care. While movies can exist to teach us many things, history is a fairly minor factor in the realm of drama. What this movie has to teach is very important indeed. It seems to me many men claim to know God’s will, but few really do. I believe Balian is one of those few. He remains true to his faith and even his political loyalties throughout, but never gets caught up in the claims of religion. I was reminded more than once in this film of a line spoken by Inman, Jude Law’s character, in Cold Mountain, “God must tire of being called down on both sides of a conflict.” Balian realizes God does not work for one side or the other, God only works his will and as his vessel it is man’s job only to be good and let God’s will be done.

It is a shame religious organizations in this country have not gotten behind this film in the way some did for last year’s less spiritual, more literal The Passion of the Christ. Kingdom of Heaven is a much more humanly story than Gibson’s realization of the Passion play. While his film dealt with literal scripture and heavenly edict, Scott’s deals with what faith is to man. What it means to have and express faith in God. While Gibson’s depicted the persecution of a god in a cauldron of intolerance, Balian earns his place in the kingdom of heaven by practicing tolerance even while surrounded by the hate of friend and foe alike that have lost sight of their faith. Never has a depiction of faith been so clear to me as the force of God that thrives in this hero’s soul.

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