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A noble crusade...
on 18 June 2006
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...
EDIT: Since Amazon have unhelpfully bundled the reviews of all versions of the film - theatrical version, director's cut, DVD and Blu-ray - together, a review of the two-disc theatrical version DVD:
The theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven turns out to be Ridley Scott's best film since Blade Runner, largely because for once his visuals are matched with a pretty good script that doesn't feel like an afterthought. While most critics, aware of the longer director's cut on the horizon, found it rushed, I had no such problem: true, the film has the quickest shipwreck in screen history and the love story quickly disappears (a shame, because Eva Green gives the film a lightness it otherwise lacks), but for the most part its journey is well told. Nor is it overly politically correct - the Muslims might be more honorable than some of the Crusaders, but that doesn't make them any less ruthless. Its biggest structural problem is the siege finale, which for all the impressive visuals pales besides Orlando's last few efforts at the battlements, The Lord of the Rings and Troy, and unfortunately feels rushed and underpowered and ultimately overstylized. We're never in the thick of it, either emotionally or visually.
For a film about religious and moral ideals, it's a curiously untriumphant epic dealing with the failure of reason and compromise. Even its hero's attempts to live a decent life becomes a part of that failure: when offered the chance to save the city from war and get the girl, his knightly code will not allow him, condemning the people of Jerusalem to war. That, and the fact that it's a film about a loser may well be part of the reason for the film's failure to find an audience in America, but it's also one of the things that makes it so interesting. Even though it's full of historical errors, it does encompass the ebb and flow of a state of mind in a point in history surprisingly well.
Orlando Bloom is far from disastrous even if he's not quite good enough. He does the grim and serious stuff well, but he doesn't offer much else: there's no light or shade to the performance, just a conscientiousness that isn't exactly wrong for the character but still leaves you hoping for something more as the third act comes along. If he's not exactly two-dimensional, he does at least manage one-and-a-half more dimensions than Clive Owen did in King Arthur and never embarrasses himself as much as Colin Farrell did in parts of Alexander. The supporting cast are mostly on good form, although Edward Norton seems to be doing Anthony Zerbe's leper turn from Papillon as the dying king.
The film was shot largely with real extras on real sets for all but the largest crowd scenes, which plays real dividends here. Aside from giving you a sense of a world outside the main characters, it also highlights one of the real limitations of CGi extras: their failure to interact with the elements. It doesn't feel like a computer game but a conflict involving real people, which helps ground the story and give it a sense of weight. John Mathieson's photography is infinitely superior to his overpraised work on Gladiator even though he does overdo the dreariness of Europe.
Harry Gregson-Williams' score is competent, but it's telling that much of the film needed to be scored with several cues from Graeme Revell's Crow, Marco Beltrani's Blade and, most effectively in the "Rise a knight" sequence, Jerry Goldsmith's Valhalla prayer from The 13th Warrior - so don't be surprised if you find yourself suddenly wanting to see one of them straight afterwards!
The extras package on the 2-disc set is impressive: several documentaries covering both production and the real history as well as a trailer (rather than the multiple trailers and TV spots promised on the packaging).