Monday, 26 September 2011

100 Days, 100 Films; Day 95 - Kingdom of Heaven

#6 - Kingdom of Heaven:
It must be funny that the first medieval epic film on my list was Robin Hood, directed by Ridley Scott and that the next one is also by Ridley Scott. It seems that these two along with Gladiator as well are his three big companion pieces, almost taking place in the same universe as each other though of course Gladiator is much earlier. In fact Richard the Lionheart appears at the end of this when he has a bigger role in Robin Hood. I’ll admit that I wasn’t too wild when this came out since I was only about thirteen and Orlando Bloom was meant to be avoided like the plague and I don’t think I had even heard of Ridley Scott back then or at least become a fan of his yet. I will stress early on that there are two versions of this film and they are both very different. If you have to see only one you should watch the Director’s Cut because it is easily a superior film. Now without further ado...

It is the time of the crusades in Europe and armies are continually marching East towards the Holy Land in the war against the Muslims. However one blacksmith Balian has returned home to his small town in France, haunted by his wife’s recent suicide when her baby was stillborn. A group of Crusaders arrive in town and their leader Godfrey, Baron of Ibelin, introduces himself as Balian’s father. Reluctantly Balian travels with the group to Messina in hopes of reaching Jerusalem. Godfrey dies along the way and makes Balian the new baron, knighting him as well. Balian reaches Jerusalem and is introduced to King Baldwin IV, a rather young leader who suffers from leprosy and wears an iron mask to hide his deformed features. He is also introduced to the king’s sister Sibylla and you can guess how that ends up. Balian doesn’t have time to enjoy the peace of Jerusalem as tensions with the Saracen army increases, not helped by the reckless exploits of Raynald de Chatillon and Sibylla’s husband Guy de Lusignan who massacre several Muslim caravans. Jerusalem prepares for a siege and Balian finds himself as the leader of the resistance after King Baldwin dies. The plot is a lot more detailed than that but, including the scenes in the Director’s Cut, the film is over three hours long and split across two DVD discs.

Now this Director’s Cut isn’t one of those re-edits that has an alternate opening, ending and a few extra shots in between. There is approximately 45 minutes of footage added on here and a whole lot of story that does get lost in the theatrical cut. Probably the biggest bonus of the DC is that the character of Sibylla gets much more screen time and is a fully fleshed out person. In the theatrical cut she is in many scenes but a lot of her lines are whittled down and she feels almost wasted, just there as Balian’s token love interest. The DC gives her an entire plot of her own outside her relationship with Balian where her son becomes king after Baldwin IV’s death but he ends up contracting leprosy so Sibylla is confronted with the option of allowing him to live a life of pain, or euthanizing him. There are a handful of other scenes in there, giving minor characters more screen time such as the Hospitaller, the Gravedigger from the beginning and Guy as well. There was one annoying scene I didn’t like where Guy and Balian have a bit of a duel and it seemed to clog up the ending but it’s over fairly soon and I suppose it’s necessary since we never find out actually what happens to Guy in the theatrical cut. There’s also a bit more gore that was cut from the theatrical release such as a messenger getting beheaded as opposed to having his throat cut. In short both Ridley Scott and the film’s crew have stated that they consider this Director’s Cut to be the true version of the film and I think I’m inclined to agree with them.

I’ve been vocal about my dislike for Orlando Bloom in the past but speaking in an unbiased way, he was brilliant in this film. I never thought he could pull off an action hero role that wasn’t some kind of pretty boy like Will, Paris or Legolas but I was able to think of him as Balian and his performance is certainly the best of his career. There is a whole crop of fine veteran actors in the film and Bloom falls into line with them and holds his own no problem at all. The veterans I’m talking about include Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson and Michael Sheen though these have very small roles despite being prominent characters. The Director’s Cut gives them all a decent amount of screen time. David Thewlis also makes up for his appalling performance in the third Harry Potter movie in his role as The Hospitaller, an ambiguous character who is hinted that he might be some kind of divine figure on Earth, likely an angel though of course it’s left open and never actually stated out loud. I also want to give a round of applause to Edward Norton who hides under the mask that enters the Uncanny Valley and does a passable English accent. I enjoyed all of Norton’s scenes and it wasn’t until years after I saw the film that I actually made the connection between this guy and the films such as Fight Club, American History X, Saving Private Ryan etc. Kevin McKidd also has a rather small role as a sergeant who abruptly disappears about forty minutes in. He does feel a bit wasted to be fair. Now then I’ve been ignoring someone so far and it’s now time to bring attention to the lovely and dynamic Eva Green playing Sibylla. With the scenes and storyline re-inserted in the DC her performance is nothing short of amazing. That’s all I can say. I can’t go into detail except I was blown away and she is definitely one of Ridley Scott’s best written female characters.

I’m going to draw attention to the visuals once again since they do deserve special attention in this film. The filmmakers went with dark horse Morocco when choosing locations to construct a medieval replica of the city of Jerusalem. The set is quite impressive and has that perfect exotic feel to it especially in the scenes where Balian first arrives and when Saladin leads his armies through the streets. We have impressive cinematography in every scene with many large and sweeping landscapes almost overwhelming us when we watch the film. The battle sequences are also a little different from the ones you normally see in this type of film as they are done a bit more choppy and expressive, not really focusing on what the characters are doing but on how it affects everything around them. The final climactic siege on Jerusalem is spectacular and the entire film builds up to that moment which is well worth the wait. The battle at Kerak is the other big action scene and I especially like the effect of the sand flying up around the knights as they fight, creating a bit of a surreal atmosphere.

Quieter and more sombre scenes include a beautiful one between Baldwin IV and Sibylla when the former is on his deathbed. Thankfully it’s left in its entirety in the theatrical cut as well. I also enjoy the love scene between Balian and Sibylla set to the haunting “Saa Magni” by Oumou Sangare. Really it’s too hard just to pick one favourite scene in this film since every scene is so stunning visually. It’s just a treat to watch this film unfold.

Now I know that a lot of people were rubbed the wrong way by the portrayal of religion in the film. Now by that I mean people were pissed that the Muslims weren’t depicted as baby-eating barbarians with no redeeming qualities. I enjoyed the positive depiction of the Muslim armies and I wasn’t offended by the negative depiction of a lot of the Christian characters. I feel that quite a few Christian characters were portrayed positively such as the Hospitaller with his line “I place no stock in religion”. Either way the religious moral isn’t heavy-handed in my opinion. I dare you to watch the entire Director’s Cut in one go as it is nearly impossible when you have already seen it before. I see it as like a brilliant two-part movie that actually doesn’t suffer when it gets split. Though of course I wasn’t going to cheat and include the two parts as two separate films on my list, though I did consider that with Deathly Hallows. Anyway that’s enough of my rambling unless you want to hear more then by all means follow me on Twitter to get your fill.

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