Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Starring: Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, Eva Green, David Thewlis, Kevin McKidd, Marton Csokas

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Orlando Bloom as Balian and Liam Neeson as Godfrey in Kingdom of Heaven

Gladiator with chain mail. Lord of the Rings without the orcs. Alexander without, um, the dodgy accents. Call it what you will, Ridley Scott's crusade epic Kingdom of Heaven is a classic in its own right.

For the second time, Orlando Bloom plays a young blacksmith whose unknown parentage will lead him into deep waters. This time it transpires that, rather than being the son of a legendary pirate, Orlando's Balian is the bastard offspring of one Baron Godrey of Ibilin, a played in customary commanding and dignified fashion by cameo king and rent-a-hero Liam Neeson. When the ageing nobleman comes to claim Balian as his son and invite him to join him in Jerusalem, it's an offer he can't refuse. When Sir Godfrey dies with an arrow in his side, his son is forced to make the journey alone, and, after a rather abrupt but cool looking shipwreck, ends up literally washed up on the shores of the Holy Land, with only his trusty sword for company.

Edward Norton as King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven

Once in Jerusalem he finds himself embroiled in an ongoing battle between King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton apparently, but as the leprous king is hidden behind a sinister steel mask, it could be anyone really) and his loyal knight Tiberias (the supercool Jeremy Irons, in 'not playing a bad guy' shocker) versus the dastardly Guy de Lusignan (why are villains always called Guy de something or other?), who, aligned with the Templar Knights, is hell bent on shattering the fragile peace the Christian rulers of Jerusalem have wrought with the Muslim leader, Saladin. It doesn't take Balian long to figure out which side he belongs on, and within minutes it seems, he's become a trusted confidante of the King, charged with protecting the city of Jerusalem. Not bad for a blacksmith who's had one quick lesson in swordplay and only knows one guard.

Eva Green as Sybilla and Orlando Bloom as Balian in Kingdom of Heaven

However, matters are further complicated by the fact that Evil Guy (Marton Csokas in full blown scary waxwork pantomime villain mode) is married to the King's sister, Sybilla (Eva Green) and stands to inherit his throne when he passes away - which, given he's half rotted by leprosy, won't take long. Oh, and Balian fancies Sybilla, but thankfully the unconvincing token love plot is quickly shoved aside to make room for more mass battle action and swordage. Hooray!

Because that's what we're here to see - knights in armour and battles on a grand scale. And, unsurprisingly, epicmeister Ridley Scott does not disappoint us, as massed ranks of the infidel stretch endlessly across the burning desert sands, lobbing burning brands into the midst of the armies of the Lord and smashing down walls as if they were made of polystyrene. Which of course they probably are, but you really can't tell - everything in the film looks amazingly real and authentic.

Admittedly, there are strong overtones of Return of the King (the slow mo cavalry attacks, toppling siege towers and Playpeople trebuchets) and Alexander (the camels and general coolness of Saladin and his eastern army) and at times you do feel as if you've seen it all before, which does take the edge off the excitement a little. And of course you can't help comparing it to Ridley Scott's fantastic Gladiator (the brutal snow-bound ambush in the woods is particularly reminiscent of the opening scenes of the Russell Crowe epic) and to be honest it isn't as thrilling or emotionally enthralling. But that's not to say it's bad at all - Gladiator is a damn hard act to follow.

Jeremy Iron in 'not playing a bad guy' shocker in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven

So was teen pin up Orlando the man to step into bullyboy Crowe's sweaty sandals? Oh yes. Smiting all the foes who claim he could never carry a film on his own, Orlando is perfect as Balian. More mature both in stature and acting ability since his slightly insipid turns in Pirates of the Caribbean and Troy, he looks lovely with his tangled hair and tasteful facial furniture and seems utterly comfortable swinging a sword in his early mediaeval get up. Mmm. David Thewlis lends his usual endearing down to earth normality to the role of the Hospitaler, and special mention has to go to Jeremy Irons, who is utterly fantastic, every inch the battle scarred and battle weary warrior, who has learnt the hard way that peace may sell but no-one's buying.

As for the costumes and settings, the whole film looks simply fabulous, from the chilly mountains of France to the exotic port of Messina, from the parched bare deserts of the Holy Land to the grimy sprawl of Jerusalem; from the crusader knights in their tabards and greasy chainmail to the armies of the east in their gleaming golden armour - the whole thing looked amazing. And I'm no historian, but there were certainly no glaring anachronisms (except possibly Orlando's leather style trews - no baggy nappy hose here, thank God) to spoil the period feel.

Charge! Orlando Bloom takes to the saddle in Kingdom of Heaven

Much has been muttered about the morals of the movie - is it anti-Islamic, for example? Er, no. The 'infidels' are cultured, intelligent, pragmatic and civilised. Is it too politically correct then? No again - there are cultured, intelligent, pragmatic and civilised knights on the other side too - along with warmongering self-serving bastards like Guy de Lusignan and his portly sidekick Reynald (Troy's Brendan Gleeson). One-dimensional warmongering self-serving bastards aside, nothing is clear cut, black and white, in this film - much as Balian may want it to be. All he wants is to be a good knight, to build a 'kingdom of heaven' in which a man's conscience can be at peace - a noble intention, but one that quickly becomes mired in the murky politics of the Middle East.

'Sometimes you have to do a little evil to do a great good,' the rather tedious Princess Sybilla points out, but for Balian, compromise is not an option. And it's his integrity and earnest desire to do good that form the emotional core of the film, and save it from coming across as a confused sermon on the need for peace in the Holy Land.

Kingdom of Heaven is a brave and bold attempt to tackle a complicated and contentious subject in a sensitive and thought-provoking manner. Like Alexander, it isn't going to please everyone, but it certainly pleased me. The armies of the Lord may have failed to save Jerusalem, but Kingdom of Heaven is still a triumph.

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