Epic contortions

Kingdom of Heaven

Orlando Bloom may not be Russell Crowe, but in this picture he does a passable Johnny Depp.

Orlando Bloom may not be Russell Crowe, but in this picture he does a passable Johnny Depp.

Rated 2.0

Director Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven has all the spectacle that $130 million can buy and all the visual splendor and impressive battle scenes that Scott’s eye and gift for deployment can provide. It even has (within the usual limits of a Hollywood epic) a reasonable grasp of history—in this case, the uneasy truce in the Holy Land between the second and third crusades. What it lacks, unfortunately, are a compelling story and characters with performances that measure up to the grandeur of the theme and setting.

The story opens in 1184 in France. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is a village blacksmith who has lost first his infant child and then his wife through suicide in her grief. Under the circumstances, he isn’t overjoyed to look up from his forge and see his father, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson)—but then the two have never met. Godfrey went off crusading after begetting Balian with a local girl, but now he’s ready to be a proper father, offering to take Balian back to his feudal domain near Jerusalem.

Balian refuses, but later the village priest drops by and has the bad grace to taunt him with a description of his wife in the corner of hell reserved for suicides. Balian skewers the priest and roasts him over the forge, and then he changes his mind about Godfrey’s offer, hoping that a pilgrimage to the Holy Land will intercede with God on his wife’s behalf—and on his own.

When a posse shows up to arrest Balian, Godfrey and his knights fight them off. But it’s a pyrrhic victory, leaving Godfrey mortally wounded. Knowing he won’t make it home, Godfrey says to Balian, “Go where the men speak Italian. Then continue until they speak something else.”

It takes awhile and a shipwreck, but these directions, surprisingly enough, manage to get Balian to the feudal Kingdom of Jerusalem, where he meets Baldwin IV, the historical leper king, played by Edward Norton in the movie’s best performance. Baldwin, doomed by his disease to rule weakly, die young and leave no heir, nevertheless was a decent man who did the best he could, and better than one probably would expect, in an impossible position. Norton, his face hidden behind a silver mask, has only his voice, his hands and his body language to portray this melancholy king, and the way he does it is an education for any actor.

In the wake of Baldwin’s death, the rapacious knight Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), whose depredations were barely contained by Baldwin and his marshal (Jeremy Irons) while the king was alive, breaks the fragile peace between Christian and Muslim forces. This prompts the Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) to lay siege to Jerusalem, ruled now by Baldwin’s sister Sibylla (Eva Green) and her arrogant husband, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas), with Balian directing the defense of the city. Medieval-history buffs will know the outcome; others may find it a surprise, even something of an anticlimax.

Scott gives Kingdom of Heaven everything he’s got, but William Monahan’s script is too cursory and sketchy to support the visuals. We miss Neeson and Norton, but we still have Irons, Gleeson and others; there’s simply not enough substance to the story to keep them busy. Even the villains are puny and underdone.

Also, the movie is soft at the center. Bloom has too wispy a presence to carry a movie of this size. The quality that made him a good choice for the callow, cowardly Paris in Troy works against him here. (Bloom reportedly added 20 pounds of muscle for the role, but he still doesn’t seem like a blacksmith; he looks as if lifting the hammer too high would make him topple over backward.)

In fairness to Bloom, he’s trying to do something he hasn’t been trained for. Fifty years ago, Balian would have been played by Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas or Richard Burton—actors who could stand among clashing armies with arrows flying, swords clanging and horses thundering in every direction and still be the center of attention. There aren’t many stars around who can still do that, and it isn’t Bloom’s fault that he’s not Russell Crowe.

Digital effects may bring back the cast-of-thousands epic, but—so far, at least—they can’t create stars to stand out from the crowd.