In it’s essence, Kingdom of Heaven is Ridley Scott’s attempt to recreate the success of Gladiator. Just from the plot synopsis, you can notice the glaring similarities between the two. Who could blame Scott for trying to whip up another period epic? It’s not like he’s trying to defile Gladiator’s grave for money, Kingdom of Heaven actually has many differences when you delve past it’s surface. In fact, KoH seems like it wants to distance itself from it’s older brother in many ways, however this isn’t consistently the case. This film offers thrills for fans of Ridley Scott’s previous sword and sandals epic, as well as fans of the genre itself (such as myself), but won’t really branch out to any other demographic.
There aren’t a plethora of films that directly tackle the religious Crusades. I wouldn’t say it’s an untapped goldmine, but it certainly has it’s defining features, religion obviously being the biggest. Two religions battling it out for the Holy Land? Sounds awesome! What makes the setting of KoH even more attractive than the mental picture it provides on the surface, is the thorough implementation of the defining time period features. It squeezes every single characteristic of the Crusades into it’s runtime, never skipping on any opportunities the period presents visually or plot wise.
Religion does not take a backseat to the more standard plot points, and is easily my favorite aspect of KoH. Religion plays a major role in the actions and decisions of characters, as well as the overall visual imagery. Contemplation, loyalty, and revisions of faith within characters provide excellent insight and depth to the film’s relationships and plot. There is even an instance where the cowardice of the Christian church during the Crusades is portrayed, and it does so without getting bogged down in critiques of religious ideals or social commentary, things that would have felt very out of place.
Visually, KoH is a quite a bit below par compared to Gladiator. The color grading in post is perfectly drab and dreary, but doesn’t go overboard to create a sad atmosphere, just a gloomy one. In terms of cosmetics, the costume design is historically accurate, and the wound makeup is very realistic, both come together to further showcase the setting’s visual viscerality and brute.Similar weaponry and battles ensue in both films, but this film just doesn’t reach the thrilling visual heights of Gladiator. The battles are bigger, but less personal. In Gladiator, it was always Maximus verses the opposition, never an army verses an army, even when whole armies are present. The camera mostly sticks to Maximus to display his fighting prowess. In KoH, the battles feel a bit disconnected. It is hard to determine which side is which, an aspect that cannot be changed due to the risk of historical inaccuracy appearing, and the cinematography doesn’t seem to fix this unchangeable fact at all.
Not to mention the low frame rate slo-mo, a Gladiator staple feature that is scattered pointlessly around this film. Not once is this technique used in a way that changes a shot for the better. Unfortunately, it rarely captures the sweeping scale the landscape could have provided and is a missed opportunity that immediately puts it behind the big boys of the epic genre. KoH feels like an ant in comparison to Lawrence of Arabia or Saving Private Ryan. The editing is actually very good, except in the most important parts of the film. Even minor fight scenes constantly change viewpoints every millisecond, but it surprisingly doesn’t result in nausea, and instead results in confusion.
The main character, Balian (played by Orlando Bloom), is a solid attempt at recreating Maximus. Balian’s motivation throughout the film is very similar to his Roman counterpart, but it is cleverly masqueraded by the different setting and anachronisms. As the movie goes on, however, depth is attempted to be implemented within Balian with mixed results. A particular rival feels a bit slapped onto the plot to cheaply show Balian’s religious dedication, and he does so in the most predictable of ways.Bloom’s performance is less than perfect. A big part of Balian is his ability to turn the other cheek, but doing so should not have meant turning into a stiff, script-reading robot! Even during times where he doesn’t turn the other cheek, he will neither crack a smile, or a frown, or any defining emotional expression. It’s truly a shame that Ridley Scott cannot create a main character that is even remotely close to the memorability of Maximus.
The relationship on the other hand, is actually reasonably solid. Even though Bloom still shows no facial emotion, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green) shows enough complex affection towards Balian that it makes him seem a little more likable through association, even if it is minor.The most memorable thing about KoH as a whole, is it’s perfect side characters. When Balian’s journey reaches it’s low points, you can always be fascinated with the moving cogs around him. The leaders within each religious movement are well written and never fail to be even more than the interesting protagonist. The King of Jerusalem (Edward Norton) tries to move past his pain whilst trying to maintain possession of the prized Holy Land. He is certainly one of the more layered characters, and makes use of his short appearance. The King of Jerusalem may have been a well written character, but that can’t forgive Norton’s terrible fake accent, which ends up being a huge detraction from an otherwise healthy contribution to the plot. The Saracen chancellor is easily the strongest personality on the opposing side. The chancellor’s chance encounter with Balian enters him into the plot in a unique way, and also creates a slight layer of mystery around him and his motives. Later on, he becomes a character that feels completely removed from the Gladiator similarities. He is an interesting adviser type character to the Saracen leader, and subconsciously represents the Saracens.
Three hours is a lot of time to build up a story. To put it simply, KoH makes it’s journey thoroughly worthwhile, even though it falls victim to some narrative flaws. This film will take you on an adventure through the Crusades like none before it, anchoring itself on things other than cheap war action. Character development and relationships are put firmly in front of action, which is easily the best thing that was carried over from Gladiator.
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