Kingdom of Heaven was probably my favorite film of last year, and the 194-minute director's cut gives the film more room to breathe, but it won't make converts of the unbelievers. Instead, it's a more leisurely paced version of the film for the faithful who liked the theatrical cut and want to revisit its world and characters in a little more detail. Closer in style and tone to sixties roadshows than Scott's Gladiator, and all the better for it, in many ways it's the richest and most ambitious of the recent batch of epics. It's more of a journey in the extended version, and a bloodier one (the added violence will please the gore hounds), although there are a few moments that tip over into self-indulgence and could have been tightened or omitted entirely.
The extended opening allows more character detail, but at the expense of more of Michael Sheen's caricatured greedy priest, now revealed as Balian's brother. Orlando Bloom's limitations are also given a little more room than they had in the theatrical cut, but he certainly never stoops to the lows of Gerard "I'm wonderful, me" Butler in Beowulf and Grendel, Colin Farrell's Alexander or Clive Owen's truly catastrophic non-performance in King Arthur that left that film with a void at its center. Edward Norton's performance as the Leper King suffers a little from using different takes than the theatrical version, and at least one of his expanded scenes is simply longer without really being any better than its equivalent in the shorter version. The real winner in the extra footage stakes is Eva Green, who I think I'm falling in love with and whose part is considerably expanded and much more complex, allowing her a mass of contradictory motives (few of them noble), impulses and emotions that were smoothed away in the theatrical version. The subplot involving her son also helps add more of an emotional charge to Baldwin's death, with the shot of his leprous face no longer gratuitous but essential. In fact, in this version of the film, there are even a couple of genuinely touching sequences.
While the added complexity in this cut is more in the characters than in the plot, some of the problems of the theatrical version have been addressed. The shipwreck is just as rushed in this cut as in the theatrical version, but the pacing problems in the astonishingly spectacular siege finale are much improved by the addition of a fairly minimal amount of footage. It no longer seems quite so hurried and there's more of a sense of the human cost after the battle at the Christopher Gate that was lacking in the shorter version by the simple expedient of including characters we briefly get to know among the dead. There IS one massive miscalculation after the siege where a redundant swordfight has been added: not only is it completely ineffective, dwarfed by the sheer scale and weight of what has come before, but it's also unnecessary, winding up a plot point no-one cares about any more and simply underlining the events of the previous scene.
It also now comes with added Bill Paterson, which is rarely a bad thing, especially since his brief scene as a compassionate Bishop establishes the incompatibility of fanatical adherence to religious law with the actions of a loving savior that is one of the film's major themes. Although most of the Christian clerics here are transparent hypocrites, they are also counterbalanced by David Thewlis' Knight Hospitaler just as the `good' Muslims are counterbalanced by fanatics as both Saladin and Baldwin have to walk a tightrope with their own people to prevent war.
Thanks to a strong script this is easily Scott's best film since Blade Runner. Unlike Gladiator it doesn't feel like it was written on the hoof, and he has enough confidence in the material not to overdo the stylistics at the expense of the storytelling: here the visuals serve the picture, which isn't always the case in his past work. Even John Mathieson, probably the worst cinematographer to ever win an Oscar, finally delivers the goods. CGI is used sparingly and very effectively when it is (none of the poor FX problems that plagued parts of Gladiator here, thankfully). Instead, much of the spectacle is shot for real - not only is it usually cheaper, but it's certainly a lot more impressive to look at.
The transfer quality is not as good as on the theatrical version, but it's more than acceptable. While Blu-ray buyers get shafted with only a single trailer, the extra features on the 4-disc DVD set are impressive, including a deeply depressed screenwriter mulling over its US failure. Of the additional deleted scenes included as extras, there's nothing that needed to go back into the picture: most are ideas that didn't really work while a couple are just plain silly. The DVD also includes an interesting collection of trailers and TV spots that try to sell it as everything from The Passion of the Christ II in an outrageous piece of false advertising involving adding a "Don't worry, God is with me" line of dialog not in the film (particularly ironic considering its Humanist viewpoint and the crisis of faith of its hero), a family movie, an epic adventure, a country and western rock video and a kick-ass heavy metal teen bloodbath: anything to avoid mentioning Muslims or, God forbid, history. Can't think why this didn't take off at the US box-office...