10 June 2005

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

It is the 12th century. Angst-ridden blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) discovers that he is the bastard son of Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a famous Crusader and all-round heroic chap. Godfrey persuades young Balian to travel to Jerusalem where he faces the religious bigotry of both Christians and Muslims and ultimately must prove himself by defending the city from an unfeasibly immense Saracen army.

I liked this film. I really didn't expect to, previous experiences of Hollywood 'history' having soured my taste for historical epics (Braveheart, anyone?). But this film has many strengths, not least of which the beautiful and compellingly realised visuals. Medieval Jerusalem looks like a living, breathing city, not just a painted-on backdrop. All the characters are in need of a good bath. There are children everywhere (something strangely missing from most historical films).

Sights and sounds aside, there were some decent performances from the leads, although no career greats. Jeremy Irons was underused as the Marshal of Jerusalem, charged with keeping the peace in a religiously divided city. Brendan Gleeson and Marton Csokas ham it up considerably as the scowling villains (bizarrely Gleeson's character bears more than a passing resemblance to the modern-day eccentric, the Marquis of Bath). Orlando Bloom puts in a far better performance than some reviewers might suggest, although the romantic sublot featuring Eva Green as a miserable princess doesn't quite ring true.

The battles are excellent, recalling the grimness and confusion of Ridley Scott's earlier Black Hawk Down, and the final siege is every bit as impressive as anything from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Now the controversial part. The film sacrifices some historical accuracy for the sake of the story, but this is really no worse than most World War Two films, for example. There are few enough glaring anachronisms (no American accents!) for us to enjoy the film as it is, as a work of fiction with a historical setting. The religious aspect is dealt with fairly well, even though for the most part the Muslim soldiers are faceless aggressors, not nearly as well fleshed out as their European counterparts. In the end both sides are treated fairly even-handedly, and no-one comes out of this affair smelling of roses. Fanaticism in all its forms is the true enemy, we are led to believe.

Overall this was a far better film than I had expected, and despite some silly subplots (Bloom's character seems to know more about desert life than the Arabs themselves, for some reason), the whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable. I look forward to the director's cut on DVD.


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