West versus East, once upon a timeThe siege of Jerusalem at the end of “Kingdom of Heaven” so strongly resembles the siege of Helm’s Deep at the end of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” ― hopelessly outnumbered defenders, a stirring call to arms, the interesting process of laying siege to a walled fortress ― that I don’t know how I sat through it without remembering that Orlando Bloom had been in the other one too. (A colleague had to point that out to me afterward.)
In my defense, Bloom as Legolas the elf was a rather self-effacing guy who didn’t particularly stand out among the orcs and wizards and heirs to various thrones. In “Kingdom of Heaven,” by contrast, he’s the inspirational hero, responsible for stirring the outnumbered, ragtag army to exceed its limitations. He comports himself well enough in this time-honored war movie role, which, paradoxically, calls for a character who’s not very interesting. Physical courage and self-sacrifice are pretty humdrum qualities in the movies.
The interesting characters in “Kingdom of Heaven” are the ones lurking around the fringes, played by people like Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson. Their shaded, complex little performances ― along with a worthy script and some gritty cinematography ― make this a much more thought-provoking product of the blockbuster factory than you might expect.
The setting is Jerusalem at the end of the 12th century, when the city had been held by the European Crusaders for almost a hundred years. (My ignorance of the Crusades is just about total, but subsequent slapdash research suggests the movie is reasonably respectful to history.) A dicey peace prevails between Jerusalem’s King Baldwin and the Muslim hero Saladin, who has a massive army in the distance. Neither leader wants a war, but each has underlings agitating for it.
Into Jerusalem comes Balian (Bloom), a lowly provincial blacksmith who, in the heroic tradition, discovers greatness within himself. The son of a knight (Liam Neeson), Balian is taken in by his father’s allies and drawn into the court strife. King Baldwin, it soon emerges, is a leper nearing death, and the faction in Jerusalem that wants to keep the peace is jockeying for succession with the faction that wants to spill Muslim blood for Jesus.
The parallel to present-day affairs is pretty clear, but it’s evoked with such subtlety and nuance (until that final, big-budget siege, at any rate) that the points are evoked, not forced. (For an example of how not to do this, see “Revenge of the Sith,” in which Darth Vader spouts a George W. Bush quote almost verbatim.) Again, it’s the supporting actors who deserve the most credit. Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis bring welcome notes of irony and fatalism to their good-guy characters. But most remarkable of all is the actor who plays Baldwin, the leper king, without ever showing his face. The king wears a mask at all times to hide his disfigurement; the acting is all in the voice, and in how he moves his faltering body. It’s a small, crucial performance, and it’s indelible. I’ll leave it to you to be surprised by the actor’s identity in the end credits, if you like.
Kingdom of Heaven
Action, Drama / English
by David Moll