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Kingdom of Heaven   B+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: William Monahan
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Marton Csokas, Liam Neeson, Ghassan Massoud.

Review by Sean O'Connell

During this year's Oscar monologue, host Chris Rock joked that any film set in the past needs to have Russell Crowe. He's right, but he should have included Crowe's Gladiator collaborator Ridley Scott in the punch line. Scott, who knows a thing or two about being a knight, blesses his Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven with hefty gravitas, a postured sense of accuracy, and enough reason to care for this time long since passed.

Will it be enough to wash the horrible taste left by Troy and Alexander from moviegoers' mouths? Probably not, which is unfortunate because Kingdom trumps those lackluster costume epics on every level as it sidesteps an overbearing reliance on phony CGI and leaves its pretension and false bravado at the door.

The film's central figure is humble French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom), who mourns his deceased wife and child -- the former took her own life after the latter passed away. He's invited to Jerusalem by Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), a royal figure in the hodgepodge Holy Land and the father Balian never knew he had. Godfrey promises Balian a future. The noble worker wants only to find redemption for his tarnished wife's soul in a land known for providing salvation.

William Monahan's script, his first, is rich in family bonds and man's quest for redemption. He shows great confidence in his passages, and adopts a tremendous tone that's intelligent and sensitive to the religious subject matter. Monahan instills in his screenplay a deep sense of faith, individual pilgrimage, and the desire to satisfy God's will.

With an admirable script tucked under his arm, Scott is free to perfect his film's physical appearance, and he receives outstanding production design, costuming, and prop work from his supporting players. Kingdom opens a window to the past that's masterfully lensed by cinematographer John Mathieson, who also shot Scott's last three pictures beginning with Gladiator.

Costume epics tend to recruit a handful of scenery chewers. Scott nabs two reliable thesps in Jeremy Irons and Brendan Gleeson, who drip dramatic juice from their chins after each purred soliloquy. Scott hides Edward Norton under a silver skin to play Jerusalem's King Baldwin, a beloved ruler afflicted with leprosy who sounds an awful lot like Marlon Brando. Neeson's making a habit out of playing these mentor roles. Though he's given only a few minutes of screen time, he adequately saddles Godfrey with a frank, cavalier attitude that comes with having one foot in the grave.

Bloom officially graduates to worthy-hero status. He has proved himself time and again in these overblown sagas (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the aforementioned Troy). At this point, I'm more interested to see how the magnetic star carries himself in the pending Cameron Crowe movie. Eva Green, as Bloom's potential mate, reminds us how drab Troy hottie Diane Kruger was in a similar role.

With luck, positive word of mouth will help Kingdom overcome apathy toward the genre and draw crowds to the aristocratic drama. The film enjoys powerful staging, impressive action set pieces, meaty human themes, and Scott's traditional eye for detail. By the film's inherent logic, though, audiences have no choice but to check out Kingdom of Heaven. After all, God wills it.

Review published 05.05.2005.

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