THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"KINGDOM OF HEAVEN"

The historical epic is in deep, deep trouble. Within the space of the last twelve months, we’ve been subjected to Troy, Alexander and now Kingdom of Heaven - three maddeningly boring films that seem designed to test the endurance of the human bladder. They test human patience as well. Kingdom of Heaven - set against the backdrop of the Crusades - is such a jumbled, incoherent mess that I find myself completely unable to write a plot summary. I just didn’t know what the hell was going on. Therefore, I turn to the official press kit for this explanation:

”Kingdom of Heaven stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, who undertakes the odyssey of his life for a just cause. Liam Neeson also stars as Godfrey, Balian’s father, who passes on to him both his barony and his legacy of knightly honor. The accomplished ensemble cast includes Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons as Tiberias, military advisor to King Baldwin; David Thewlis as the Hospitaler, Godfrey’s spiritual counselor and military aide; and Brendan Gleeson as the bloodthirsty Reynald of Chatillon.

In Jerusalem, Balian falls in love with the princess Sibylla, King Baldwin’s sister, played by Eva Green. She is the reluctant wife of the power-hungry baron Guy de Lusignan, played by Marton Csokas. Syrian film star and director Ghassan Massoud also stars as the great Saracen general Saladin."

You know, I’m betting that whoever wrote the press kit didn’t know what was going on either.

Kingdom of Heaven certainly looks great from every technical standard but, like Troy and Alexander, it’s absolutely soulless. So much attention has been spent on making a big, lavish piece of Oscar bait that the soul of the movie is completely ripped out. Interestingly, all three recent epics suffer from this problem for the exact same reasons:

  • A story that tries to encompass too much - This movie deals with the Crusades. That’s a rather large topic, and director Ridley Scott seems intent on cramming as much of it into his film as he can. Consequently, the story is a mess. There are probably close to a dozen things going on simultaneously in Kingdom of Heaven. The movie doesn’t set any of them up properly, which leads to utter chaos. Any movie – but particularly an epic – needs to have a strong through-line. In other words, there has to be a very clear center that the audience can follow. I didn’t exactly understand every single plot detail in the Lord of the Rings pictures, but I certainly knew that Frodo had to throw that ring into the volcano. Kingdom of Heaven comes out of the gate running in multiple directions at the same time. Part of the problem is that, in their quest for authenticity, directors and screenwriters spend a lot of time researching their topics. They then believe that all this stuff they’ve researched has to be squeezed into the finished product. More often than not, the audience doesn’t care. We just want a story we can actually follow.

  • Poorly developed characters - There are a lot of characters in this movie, and most of them never get a proper introduction. It’s not always clear who they are, or what they’re doing. This becomes irritating when they all begin talking about each other. We struggle to remember who’s who and get badly confused in the process. During much of the movie, I could only sort out the characters through other means. One character I dubbed “The Guy with the Red Beard” while another was “That Dude Jeremy Irons Plays.” “The French Guy Whose Wife is Sleeping with Orlando Bloom” was how I described “power-hungry baron Guy de Lusignan.” Of course, the characters don’t call each other by such descriptive names, so unless you have a scorecard you’re likely to mix them up. This failure to properly establish the characters leads directly to another problem:

  • Mediocre acting - I’m certainly not disputing the acting talent of anyone in this cast. However, when actors don’t have a 3-dimensional character to play, they visibly struggle for something to do. That’s definitely the case here. Orlando Bloom plays possibly the least heroic hero in recent memory because there’s nothing to Balian. We don’t buy him as a soldier, nor as a leader. Yes, he gives a “rousing” speech to his troops near the end, but there’s not a shred of conviction in Bloom’s performance. If he’d had something to play, I’m sure he would have done a fine job; like Brad Pitt in Troy or Colin Farrell in Alexander, Bloom is left brooding and smoldering at the camera in a desperate attempt to be interesting.

    These three flaws combine to seriously derail the story at certain points. Take, for instance, the affair between Balian and Sibylla, which is one of the main elements that drive the plot. There is supposed to be real passion between them, but their love scene is cut short after about five seconds (much to the reported dismay of Eva Green), so we never believe any bond has been formed. They fall in love simply because the screenplay calls for them to. With so little of substance to do, the actors are powerless to inject any fire into this subplot, on which many other plot points are supposed to depend. It’s an overreaching story + sketchy characters + helpless actors all rolled into one.

    I got lost 30 minutes into Kingdom of Heaven, then spent the next two hours staring at the screen, trying to make sense of what was happening. Come to think of it, that’s been the case with most of the historical epics of recent years. (Peter Weir’s Master and Commander is the only one I can think of that really worked, and that’s because it had the very soul that these other ones are lacking.) How are we supposed to care about these dramatic, important historical events when the films so incompetently handle everything about them? Why should we waste time on the movies when we could read a book instead? The thing that frustrates me the most, though, is that these long, boring, dispassionate epics distance the audience rather than drawing us in. Some of the worst movies I’ve ever seen have at least held my interest because they told a story I could follow. Kingdom of Heaven has interesting action scenes and undeniable technical quality but, if given the choice, I’d re-watch Alone in the Dark - the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year - before I’d watch half of this one again.

    ( 1/2 out of four)


    Kingdom of Heaven is rated R for strong violence and epic warfare. The running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes.

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