There are two things wrong with Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven". Orlando Bloom and... Orlando Bloom. Okay, that's not exactly fair. The two things wrong with "Kingdom" are...Orlando Bloom and... Orlando Bloom. Okay, really. The two things wrong with "Kingdom" are Bloom and the story. I may seem fixated on Bloom. The reason for that is that he is in virtually every frame of "Kingdom".
Balian (Bloom), a French blacksmith, meets his father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), after he has returned from the Crusades. Godfrey and his men are set to return right away. The meeting does not go well and he leaves without reconciliation. Balian's wife and child have just died, so he feels lost in his small village and rides after his father, joining him. An unexpected event leads to Godfrey's death in Messina. He has enough wits (and time) to charge his son to continue the fight. Balian travels to Jerusalem and begins to work his father's land and care for the people living on it. Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), who is married to Sibylla (Eva Green), the sister of the King of Jerusalem, is intent on breaking the truce with Saladin, the leader of the Muslim's, to prove that that his Christian Army will be victorious.
Ridley Scott is a master filmmaker and he has no trouble recreating historic periods or fantastical worlds. From "Alien" to "Blackhawk Down", from "Gladiator" to "Legend", all of Scott's films take place in worlds that are created (or recreated) to the smallest detail. This is a filmmaker who spends millions of dollars to recreate Jerusalem during the Crusades because he knows that our belief in the film will last only as long as we believe we are actually in the ancient city. Scott and his team have done a fantastic job recreating the place and time. Everything appears real and we believe that we are watching Liam Neeson and David Thewlis ride horses through the ancient gates. The use of Computer Generated Images, or CGI, is commonplace in a film like this. There is simply no way the crew could physically recreate these settings, so they use a mixture of physical sets and computer effects to give the settings the scope and grandeur so important to make them believable. In many films, CGI is also used during battle scenes. Again, it would cost a fortune to fill a stadium with extras ("Gladiator") or to hire extras to play every soldier in a battle ("Kingdom of Heaven"), so they use CGI to fill in all of the extras in long shots. In "Heaven", these effects are so advanced that I really only noticed them at one point. Usually, I can spot their use more.
Often, when a filmmaker spends so much time, attention and money on the physical (sets, costumes, weaponry) something is short-changed. In "Kingdom", the story and acting are the victims here. In "Gladiator" we actually spend time getting to know Maximus (Russell Crowe), meet his wife and child, and learn of his conflicts before he is thrust into the action. When he is made a slave, we feel empathy for him and care for him. In "Kingdom", everything has already happened to Balian (Bloom), before the film starts. His wife and child are dead, but we didn't get to meet them, therefore we have to depend on Bloom's acting to make us feel for them and him. Bloom isn't that good an actor. From the moment we meet him, he appears dour and depressed, but his character is only skin deep, we never get a feeling of why he feels this way. We are told that his wife and child are dead, but the two aren't connected. The reunion between father and son is a strange scene. Granted, in 1100, I wouldn't expect either to get teary eyed or weepy, but I would expect them to say something, anything, that might indicate the loss of years, the joy in reunion, something. As it is, Bloom soon joins his father, but only because other events have forced this action, not because he feels a lack of paternal bonding. Later in the film, Bloom has an affair with Sibylla. Again, we really don't get a feeling that he even cares for her. When Jerusalem is threatened and she is within the city gates, we don't feel any sense of threat to her character. A missed opportunity in my opinion. If the filmmakers and actors had been able to invest the audience with any empathy for any of the characters, we would have cared about their outcome a great deal. As it is, we are simply watching a historical event unfold on the screen, much like watching a Discovery Channel recreation.
Bloom is miscast. Neeson, Thewlis, Csokas, Brendan Gleeson and others all appear right for a film of this period. They are burly, strong, and rough. Clearly, they are not really like this, but acting. Bloom is too pretty to be believable as a Crusader in the 1100s. Remember the scene in "Troy" when his character gets his a** kicked and his brother, played by Eric Bana, has to save him? That is believable. Bloom as a Crusader is not. If he were a better actor, he might have pulled it off, but he really only uses two facial expressions throughout the film. One that could be disgust, mourning, shock, and the other, a more neutral facial expression, when he should be relatively happy. It doesn't work.
Before going to the film, I had a triple shot mocha. This should have guaranteed that I was awake for the entire film, but I still fell asleep. I was so disinterested in what happened to Balian that I lost interest in the film. As mentioned previously, Bloom is in almost every frame of the film, he is the main character, the center of the film's universe. If we don't care about him, how are we supposed to care about anyone or anything else? The acting in "Kingdom" makes "Gladiator" look like "Citizen Kane".
In this day and age, a film about the Crusades is almost guaranteed to stir up some religious fervor. I don't know enough about religion to comment whether "Kingdom" does or doesn't stir the pot. If anything, the film appears to have tried, painfully, to keep everything very even handed with one exception. Most of the Christian leaders appear to be against further conflict and happy with the truce. Saladin, the lone Muslim leader portrayed in the film, also appears to be against further conflict and happy with the truce. This appears to be the filmmakers attempt to keep everything very neutral but also robs the film of any drama or conflict. They obviously recognized that the film could be a powder keg of ant-this or anti-that rhetoric and feeling. But clearly "Kingdom" has to have some conflict. Scott, and company, introduce this through Guy de Lusignan and his crazy co-hort, Reynald (Brendan Gleeson). As soon as Guy comes to power, he is intent on breaking the truce, because he is confident his troops will be victorious. Both of these characters are the "Villains". They are clearly evil and crazy, so much so that there is no mistaking them for anything else. Naturally, because they are so evil, Balian must be all the more virtuous and good. With such "clear" characters, subtlety and change are pretty much thrown out the window, robbing the film of even more drama and interest.
"Kingdom of Heaven" is a handsome production, fun to look at, but it lacks a central character with any soul. Because of this, we are simply watching a bunch of people go through the motions, without any investment in their lives or safety. Because we don't care about any of the people in the film, it becomes boring very quickly.