Sunday, March 22, 2009

"If God does not love you, how could you have done the things you've done?"

(UPDATED twice below.)

So asks a Muslim nobleman of Balian of Ibelin near the end of Ridley Scott's movie Kingdom of Heaven. Balian, who has been seeking God's will through the entire film, makes no real answer as he takes his leave of Jerusalem, yielding to the Muslims who, under the leadership of Saladin, have conquered the city. And yet, Balian leaves with the respect, shared mutually, of the Muslim nobles.

Almost three years ago (as of this writing; more than that, as of this posting), I watched Kingdom of Heaven and was, as has been my typical experience with Ridley Scott's movies, underwhelmed. I didn't dislike the film, per se, but I found it curiously uninvolving and emotionally cool, despite the typical Scott production values. (The film is utterly gorgeous, one wonderful shot after another, but more on that later.)

I learned a while later that the film was a victim of the all-too-common movie malady, the dreaded Studio Cut, in which a director makes a movie the way the director wants, but when he screens it for the executives, they dislike it and mandate a whole bunch of cuts. In the case of Kingdom of Heaven, a three-hour epic that took its time telling its story was forced to become a two-hour pseudo-epic that felt overstuffed and, at the same time, underexplained. So, when it came time for the DVD release, Scott was allowed to restore the material he hadn't wanted cut -- almost an entire hour's worth of material.

Now, not all movies are helped by indulging directors' desires to stick stuff back into the films for DVD releases. But many are, with some movies – the Lord of the Rings films, for example – so benefit by their expansions that the "Extended editions" become the canonical versions. Really, who watches the theatrical cuts of LOTR anymore? Kingdom of Heaven benefits from Scott's revisiting to a frankly amazing degree: the movie was a serviceable medieval war story, but now, in its Extended Director's Cut, it's a stunning epic. As I watched its story unfold, I kept thinking to myself, "Why didn't I like this movie this much last time?" And I was often hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Even though it's been three years since I saw the theatrical cut and thus can't remember it well enough to definitively say what's been added and what has not. (Upon further review, the entire subplot of King Baldwin IV's nephew, who would become King when Baldwin IV dies, is new to this version.) This isn't a movie with a few scenes added just to get you to buy the DVD. Nor is it an Extended version with lots of new scenes that enhance the movie you've already seen. So much has been restored for this version that it's an entirely new movie.

The story is one of those "Poor stiff finds fame and glory in a far-away land" tales. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is the blacksmith in a French village; as the film opens, he is mourning his wife, who has committed suicide after losing her baby. Soon a band of Crusaders returns to the region, including a man (Liam Neeson) who is now a Baron in the Holy Land, and who turns out to be Balian's father. After some nastiness, Balian has no choice but to leave his home and travel to the Holy Land himself, not so much as a Crusader but as a man seeking favor with God after committing sinful acts. On his way he makes friends and enemies, some of whom are Muslim and some of whom are fellow Christians; he becomes embroiled in all manner of political intrigue in the Holy Land at the time when the King of Jerusalem (Baldwin IV) is a leper who is nearing death and when the Muslims have found their greatest leader, Saladin, who is winning victory after victory. Balian finds himself involved with Sibylla, and toward the end of the film, he finds himself charged with the defense of Jerusalem itself.

Scott is, as ever, a visual genius, and there's nary a shot in this entire film that doesn't have something interesting going on. His Holy Land, hot and bright and dusty, contrasts with his Europe, which is cold and wind-swept and a place where snow is constantly fluttering down from gray skies. The sets are opulent and magnificent, and the long shots of medieval Jerusalem, created by computer, manage to look authentic. I've never questioned Ridley Scott's skills as a visual director, but I've always found his movies somehow uninvolving on the human side – until this one, or at least, this version of this one. Watching Kingdom of Heaven now, in its longer version, I found my attention never wandering at all.

The film is full of fine performances. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, and it's a good performance, if not especially wide-ranged. It seems to be accepted wisdom that Bloom is a bad actor and mainly a pretty face, but I don't think that's fair; he strikes me as a British version of Kevin Costner, a guy who may not have the wide range of quite a few better actors, but whose performances are better than typically seen and who, in the right role, can actually shine. Eva Green plays Sibylla, a woman caught between love and duty to her nation and her son, with lots of emotion that looks forward to her turn as James Bond's first great lover in Casino Royale. The supporting cast is superb across the board, with not a single false note in the entire cast. Most notable is Edward Norton, who embodies King Baldwin IV; what's amazing about him is that the King wears a silver mask in all of his scenes, owing to his disfigurement from leprosy. With no ability to call on facial expressions or even eye movements, Norton nevertheless conveys a wide range of feeling in his performance, so much so that this film is a good answer for anyone who has ever wondered how convincing Greek drama must have been, with all of those performers in their masks.

Many of the film's events are drawn from true history; Baldwin IV really did die young of leprosy, and his successor, Baldwin V, did die at the age of nine. There was a Queen Sibylla who ruled alongside King Guy; there really was a Balian of Ibelin. Raymond of Chatillon really did suffer the fate depicted herein. It's not strictly accurate history, obviously, but this movie treats its subject matter with respect. This isn't a movie like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which exist in a cheerfully-ahistorical timeline. And the film's villains aren't exclusively Muslims, nor are they exclusively Christians. There are honorable men and women on both sides, which is a pretty remarkable stance for this film to have taken given that it was made in the days following the 9-11-01 attacks.

The music for the film is by Harry Gregson Williams, a composer who has emerged over the last decade as a potentially exciting new voice (his most notable work is for the Narnia films). Here he writes a score that blends medieval European religious chant with soundscapes evocative of the Middle East, resulting in a score that is often captivating. The only down part of the score is the odd use, in a late scene in which Balian must give a rousing speech to the inadequate defenders of Jerusalem, of a cue from Jerry Goldsmith's score to the movie The Thirteenth Warrior. I have no idea what possessed Ridley Scott to use this music here, when Gregson Williams has written an otherwise wonderful score for this fairly meditative epic, but Scott has a long history of making odd decisions with regard to the music for his films, so who knows. A regular viewer watching the movie probably wouldn't even notice that there's a melody heard in that scene that never occurs in any other part of the movie; they'd only notice that the music there is nicely rousing for a scene that's rousing in nature. But a film music geek like me? That stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.

I'm glad Ridley Scott was afforded the opportunity to revisit this film. It really is a superior effort; it's most certainly my favorite film by Ridley Scott. I can't recommend it highly enough. (And now I'm actually looking forward to Scott's announced project on the Robin Hood legend.)

UPDATE: My take on Orlando Bloom as an actor isn't taken well at an Orlando Bloom message board, which strikes me as odd, since I openly state he's not a bad actor. I actually think he's pretty good. He's not Olivier, or Ian McKellen, or Daniel Day-Lewis, but Bloom does perfectly well in the movies I've seen him in. He's fine in Lord of the Rings, he's fine in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, he's good in Elizabethtown, and he's good in Kingdom of Heaven. I'm not sure what their point of contention is, unless they're of the view that I'm actually not being sufficiently effusive in my praise of Bloom as an actor. I'm not often taken to task for not being nice enough in my compliments, but there it is. I just know that most times I see Orlando Bloom mentioned, and people rip on him as being a bad actor, which I think is pretty wrong-headed.

I guess you can't please everybody.

UPDATE II: Now that some more replies have popped up at the message board thread linked above, I see that the main point of contention seems to be my comparison of Orlando Bloom to Kevin Costner. I wasn't making a one-to-one comparison of the men as actors, but I cited Costner as an example of another actor whose work I think tends to be unfairly maligned. No, Costner wasn't a particularly great Robin Hood, but he's really good a lot more often than a lot of stuffy cinema folks like to admit. (Bull Durham, Dances With Wolves, Tin Cup, Field of Dreams, A Perfect World, and JFK are all good examples, to my mind. And frankly, if I concede that Bloom would make a better Robin Hood than Costner did, surely one must also agree that Bloom could not play Crash Davis anywhere near as well as Costner did!) That's all I meant with that comparison. So when I say that I see Orlando Bloom as a younger, British version of Costner, I do not mean that as an insult.

BTW, folks over there, you're welcome to comment here too! I don't bite. Not usually, anyway.

1 comment:

Marie said...

I'm from "over there on another Orlando Bloom board." I'd like to add that most of us on the board I frequent really appreaciate your comments about Orlando and especially about his role in KOH. We lobbied long and hard to bring KOH Director's Cut to the big screen because once seen as you did...there is no comparison. Just wanted you to know we're happy that you have been bold enough to say you think Orlando is a decent actor. Take a peak at his performance in Haven if you get the chance.