“Kingdom of Heaven”

A character boasts: "I once fought two days with an arrow through my testicle." After sitting through this would-be epic on the Crusades, I know just how he felt.

Topics: Movies,

"Kingdom of Heaven"

Like “Troy,” “Alexander” and “The Last Samurai,” Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is another boy’s-book adventure movie dressed up as a grown man’s epic — it’s far too little for its britches. Orlando Bloom plays 12th century crusader Balian of Ibelin. (When wise elder warrior Godfrey of Ibelin, played by Liam Neeson, knighted him with a slap on the face, I wanted to cry out, “Arise, Sir Loin of Beef!”) In the beginning, Balian is just a humble blacksmith, plying his trade in his homeland of France. But his child has died, and his wife has committed suicide; what’s more, a corrupt priest has just swung by the blacksmith shop to let him know that his wife, having taken her own life, is damned to hell. Balian loses his temper and kills him.

Fortunately, a great knight on his way back from fighting in the East (Neeson’s Godfrey) has just stopped by Balian’s town. Godfrey happens to be Balian’s dad (he did a lot of tomcattin’ around in his youth), and he has just the ticket to cheer Balian up: Why not join the religious wars raging in the far-off Holy Land? Normally, a quick trip to Vegas would do the trick, but bullying fellow humans into Christian conversion will do in a pinch.

So Balian sets out for Jerusalem, eventually meeting a leper king in a silver mask — that would be the enlightened Christian King Baldwin IV, played with great vocal authority by Edward Norton — as well as various European crusader types intent on destroying the fragile peace in the Holy Land, which is due largely to the restraint of the sensible and intelligent Muslim leader Saladin (played with charismatic dignity by Ghassan Massoud). Great clashes ensue: There are so many battles in “Kingdom of Heaven” that it’s easy to lose track of them. What’s more, it’s so hard to follow what’s going on in these battles (as well as exactly why they’re happening in the first place) that they turn the movie into one long gray smudge of action with some talking in between. To break up the endless sword clanging and arrow slinging, characters utter jaunty lines like “The blacksmith is the man you seek!” “So — how find you Jerusalem?” and, my personal favorite, “I once fought two days with an arrow through my testicle.”



“Kingdom of Heaven” is a similar test of fortitude. This is muddled and oppressive storytelling (the script is by William Monahan) dotted with elaborate but weightless battle sequences: The rallying cries of the various warring factions, their noble sacrifices, their sheer numbers — all of it seems carefully calculated by Scott to fool us into thinking we’re not in the Middle East but in Middle Earth. But unlike the battles of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, these “historical” skirmishes have little gravity. Since we barely know what’s at stake — we’re too confused and bored to care — all this fighting means nothing to us, and yet Scott still hopes to rev us up with it. He pretends to ask the anguished question “Why must mankind fight?” even as he’s really just rushing to the convenient answer “I dunno, but gosh, doesn’t it look cool?”

Scott, of course, wants to have it both ways. He sincerely believes he’s trawling history for important moral lessons that we can put to use today, and he thinks he’s being profound by applying convoluted but ultimately simplistic storytelling to complicated modern problems. His thinking is muddled and murky. When Bloom encounters a group of Muslims giving praise to Allah, he remarks that their prayer “sounds like our prayers.” Imagine — Muslims are people just like us! If Scott had his druthers, he’d whirl the world’s religions in a giant blender and come up with a frothy milkshake we all could share. Religious conflicts, border disputes and anxieties about terrorism would be instantly dissolved with a handshake and a goat’s milk ice-cream cone.

In Scott’s view, religion isn’t the root of the world’s problems — people are. But if we need a movie to tell us that, “Kingdom of Heaven” sure isn’t it. The picture doesn’t have the brooding emotional power of Scott’s “Gladiator” (largely provided by its star, Russell Crowe). It doesn’t even have the cheerful ludicrousness of “Troy” and “Alexander.” Scott never lets us forget he’s a big-time filmmaker who’s serious about his craft, which means he uses lots of fat close-ups that explode the frame for no good reason. (Cinematographer John Mathieson gives us lots of great, sweeping landscapes, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.) A few of the actors manage to thrive even in the death ray of Scott’s self-important vision, most notably David Thewlis as a Hospitaler (or knight-confessor) and Jeremy Irons as Tiberius, advisor to King Baldwin. And Eva Green, who made her debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s lovely political-pop-culture reverie “The Dreamers,” plays Baldwin’s sister, Princess Sibylla, with a measure of cool that defies her surroundings: She doesn’t quite know what to do with her character’s stilted dialogue, but she carries herself so regally that you barely notice.

Bloom doesn’t fare so well. Balian and Sibylla go to bed together (although because this isn’t a movie about romance and other ewky stuff, Scott barely gives them a single love scene), and you have to wonder what she sees in this supposedly brave and principled thinker-warrior (not to be confused with a tinker-tailor or soldier-spy). Bloom reportedly gained 20 pounds to play Balian, but he still looks in danger of blowing away any minute. When he opens his mouth, a painstakingly noble squeak comes out. That shouldn’t matter so much if you ascribe to the thinking that wars are won with brains, not brawn. But epic heroes need to have at least a soupçon of presence, and Bloom, although good-looking in a “the dog ate my homework” kind of way, just doesn’t have what it takes to hold down a picture as gargantuan as this one tries to be. “Kingdom of Heaven” is a big movie that asks the big question, “So — how find you Jerusalem?” The answer is, not so hot.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>