I'd heard several mixed reviews about Kingdom of Heaven; Ridley Scotts epic followup to Gladiator. Confusion reigned when one reviewer labelled the film an incitement to racial hatred due to its somewhat anti-Islam stance, while another reviewer said it was the exact opposite. So I entered the cinema somewhat unsure which of the two reviewers had actually seen the movie!
My low expectations probably helped here, for this is no Gladiator. The story, while disjointed is quite strong and gives tremendous sense of scale as men from all over europe flock to the Holy Land to 'do Gods Will'. However, very early on we see the Directors intention is not to criticise Islam, but to squarely point the finger of blame at Rome, and the extremist followers who did the Popes bidding.
"To kill an infidel is not murder"
Balians (Orlando Bloom) reaction to such lines is one of disdain. He is the protector of people, not religion; a lesson passed down to him by his father (Liam Neeson).
How Balian comes to be in Jerusalem is a largely uninspiring affair. His wife, having committed suicide is damned to hell, while Balian himself has become the man that God has foresaken. Luckily, his father, the Baron of Ibelin, arrives just in the nick of time to whisk the young
This is were the movie earns its wings. Despite being sold as the action-packed followup to Gladiator, KoH is surprisingly low on sword wielding antics until the final third. Instead it chooses to focus on the fragile peace between the Christian rulers of Jerusalem and the majority Muslim inhabitants of the land. The political interplay between the central figures is superb. The King maintains an open dialogue with the leader of the Muslims, Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), working hard to enable the two religions to live together. Jeremy Irons puts in a solid performance as Tiberias, the man who believes that all denominations must live together regardless of whether it goes against the Papal doctrine.
Of course, for every peace loving Knight there are hundreds of warmongers, and none greater than Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), the Kings brother-in-law. Through his henchmen, he intends to start a new war; a war to wipe out the Muslims, for they are the enemies of Christianity. There are shades of the powerhungry Commodus here, but none of the brilliance. Too often does Lusignan resort to snarling, in an effort to look evil, to ever be credible.
When the shit hits the fan, we just know that everyones favourite elf will come to the rescue. Balian has vowed to protect the people, be they Christian or Muslim and this is how he remains. Unfortunately, Bloom lacks both the charisma and gravitas to pull off this role. While I enjoyed his performances in Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, he was very much a co-star in both. It is a real shame, because for the majority of this film there is an epic story trying to run free, only for it to be constantly held back by Blooms impotent hero and Csokas' snarling villain. For all my dislike of Russell Crowe, the man had tremendous stature in the role of Maximus.
In the end, the best performances are those of the underused Irons, Norton, Massoud and Alexander Siddig (playing the brilliant Nasir). Meanwhile, the least said about Balians love interest Sibylla (Eva Green) the better.
In summary, a terribly disjointed film that is let down entirely by the lead actors. It has moments of genius and beauty, while the poignant message about religions living together in peace echoes long after the movie has finished.