Kingdom of Heaven (review)

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Good Knight, Sweet Prince

Okay, baron, actually. Orlando Bloom plays a baron, a medieval French baron. But still. Yum. I’m sorry — I can’t help it. He’s beautiful. So, I’m shallow. I admit it. He’s gorgeous, and any hotblooded heterosexual woman who denies she’s going to see Kingdom of Heaven just because Orlando Bloom is in it is lying, I tell ya: lying. Or else she’s a medieval scholar and wants to see how Hollywood gets it all wrong. But even that woman is going to Not Care how wrong it might be when he strides across the screen all long and lanky and swings a sword and gets all angst-ridden for more reasons than a man should have to be angst-ridden and blinks those limpid eyes in masculine pain and talks with that mouth you just want to smush and make all the hurt go away…
Look: this is why we go to the movies. We don’t expect movies to be history lessons or graduate dissertations, and anyone who looks for that from Hollywood is a fool. Is there stuff that’s historically inaccurate with Kingdom of Heaven? Probably. The friend I attended the screening with, who’s something of a scholar of medieval stuff herself, pointed out some details that were just plain wrong — things from minor embellishments on swords that would not have yet been developed in the 12th century to political peculiarities of certain religious orders that had long since been abandoned — but even she was pretty much reduced to a puddle of goo by the closing credits. And not just by Orlando Bloom. There’s also Liam Neeson and Alexander Siddig (Reign of Fire, Vertical Limit) — who used to be called Siddig el Fadil when he was on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and if his change of name isn’t a devastating commentary on intolerance and racism in even supposedly liberal Hollywood, I dunno what is — and Jeremy Irons (Being Julia, The Merchant of Venice) and poor David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Timeline) who just because he doesn’t look like a model almost always gets shuffled into bad-guy roles (though not here), and he’s really very sexy (cuz he’s talented as well as cute). There’s the standard one hot chick — cute and freckly Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Sibylla, princess of Jerusalem — for the guys, but Kingdom of Heaven is the kind of movie that makes me wonder why I complain about how there’s never enough women in adventure movies, cuz that means there’s usually all sorts of delicious guys instead.

I’m not immune to the other things at work — I’d hardly have been at this for all these years if all I had to say was “Ohmigod he’s so cuuuuuute!” — and certainly my brain and not just other organs were engaged by Kingdom of Heaven, which is pretty much a prerequisite for the rest of my body to get involved, actually. You probably know that Bloom plays a dude who follows in the footsteps of his father (Neeson: Kinsey, Love Actually) in traveling to the crusades in Jerusalem in like the year 1100-something, only not just in his father’s physical footsteps but his philosophical ones as well — Bloom’s (Troy, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) Balian isn’t intent on slaughtering infidel Muslims but on protecting the Holy Land for everyone to come and worship as they please, and he’s says things like how Jerusalem “drives men mad” and holds in contempt religious lunacy from all quarters, Christian and Muslim alike (Jews are fairly absent from the story, in fact). And I spent half the film wondering, Is this too contemporary an attitude, this compassionate and rational humanism? And I spent the other half chastising myself for falling into the trap of believing that we in the past 50 years invented everything (like rational compassion and humanism). I spent the whole film wondering, Is this all hopelessly revisionist, or is it just hopeful? And then Orlando Bloom is half naked in one ridiculously gratuitous moment, and I stopped wondering. That was religious experience enough for me.

Kingdom of Heaven also had me vacillating between being a geek, constantly seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Lord of the Rings — Iain Glen (Darkness, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) appears briefly as Richard the Lionheart, and all I could think was, You can tell he’s a king, he’s not covered in shit; and in one pre-battle scene, I swear heard I heard Aragorn say, “For Frodo” — and being a film critic, pondering on how it’s gonna be impossible for anyone to make a movie with epic battles anymore that isn’t going to make everyone think of orcs and wizards. And you know what? Forget Peter Jackson: director Ridley Scott is aping himself, with the frenetic combat and splattering blood and clumps of dirt getting thrown up in the camera — he’s done this too many times before, in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, et cetera. And I really like the gritty grandeur of Scott’s films, how he finds a kind of honor in sweat and toil and work (most of ’em, anyway — the less said about Hannibal, the better). But the best instinct he had here was to not show us one important battle, to just cut from the buildup to the aftermath, carrion birds soaring over the bloody field and the dead bodies. Cuz what’s important about the battles for this story isn’t how they directly impacts the grunts fighting them — as was the point in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down — but how the outcome of those battles impact politics and the powerful men who sent those armies to fight.

And that’s where Kingdom of Heaven ends up falling down: it’s supposed to be one man’s story but it lingers far too much on staging enormous battles and far too little on Balian — Scott, and the script by first-time screenwriter William Monahan, don’t skip over anywhere near enough of the minor points and skip over far too many of what should have been the major points. I wanted more Lawrence of Arabia stuff, more about this man falling in love with a place and a people far more exotic than he could possibly have ever imagined from his formerly tiny provincial perspective — there are only a few bones thrown at the idea that Balian comes to truly appreciate and understand his father’s desire to protect not the endlessly fought-over stones of Jerusalem but its people. And that’s really weird, because whether Balian’s attitudes are anachronistic or not, they are certainly ones I am far more sympathetic toward than, say, the religious impetus that drives Maximus in Gladiator, but because the latter film is truly Maximus’s story, I’m totally onboard for it — I get it. I never really understood why much of what happens in Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to matter. When I wasn’t melting into a fangirl puddle, I was wondering how it all could seem more real when it was hobbits and elves and trolls.

(Note to Orlando: Dude, get away from the epic battles, quick. Yes, it’s all very manly and the fangirls like me love it when you shoot an arrow or swing a sword and get all sweaty in a noble cause, but show us what else you can do. I’m thinking a Noel Coward-type drawing-room comedy, maybe, or try playing kind of a bad guy. We’ll still love you.)

Sure, the opportunity to drool is a fine excuse to go to the movies. But I would have loved it if Kingdom of Heaven had totally kicked my ass for other reasons, too.

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