A beautiful but imperfect film that is good not great.
It seems these days with film criticism, that every movie either has to be great or terrible. In the fifteen years since Kingdom of Heaven was released, film criticism has grown its own sub-economy. A Collider article recently shared to Reddit went viral about Kingdom of Heaven stating how the film’s Director’s Cut dramatically mitigates all the original release’s problems and serves as Ridley Scott’s (Alien, Blade Runner) true masterpiece.
This is a popular narrative in film nerdom. The evil corporation funding the movie were the ones that actually ruined it and the original agreed upon release is nigh unwatchable. As time goes on the film gets buried waiting to be rediscovered as a hidden gem. The notion that Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut is as good as its reputation suggests fits with the timeline of modern film rediscovery. Like the smug There Will Be Blood piece published in The Guardian a few weeks back is saying, any film released between 2003 and 2011 came out during a formative time for wannabe film critics like myself. For broader reference lets say anything between the first and last Harry Potter movies. From the year I turned ten to the year before I went off to college (or the year before I started this blog). You could could extend that to further include critical phases of geek culture like Batman v. Superman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi but that’s a film essay for another time.
Since we’re in the middle of a COVID epidemic and bored out of our minds there’s room for Kingdom of Heaven to prosper. So it happens I recently watched the Director’s Cut a few weeks ago before this article blew up. The film is easy consumption for self-isolation. Long with a wide scope I remember liking it upon the original DVD release my dad had bought (which strangely has a nicer cover than the Director’s Cut) so I bought into the hype. A few years ago I convinced my father on a Blu-ray buying spree to upgrade, although it since went unseen until last month. Ultimately, I could only convince my mother to watch it with me. I was hyped from positive pieces like the review IGN gave it. The general improvement of this version was occasionally discussed on message boards and DVD review sites over the years (check out the film’s Wikipedia page). The Director’s Cut is the preferred version of the film and smooths out plenty of rough edges, but there’s no getting around a movie whose story demands a compelling lead it ultimately does not deliver.
The longer cut improves the film’s story at a great cost of time and efficiency for a movie that lacks depth. It does however have plenty of beautiful breadth to spare. It is episodic and contains the many pleasures of a television miniseries, quite common in Ridley’s home of England. It has a Game of Thrones–like scope with a Jon Snow type actor in the lead, hence the original film serving as inspiration. Nikolaj Coster Waldau who plays Jamie Lannister on that series has a small but pivotal role in this film, and it uses the same blue colour tones and dialogue speak that Thrones would go on to later use. Other actors do fine but the main problem of the movie through no great fault of his own rests with Orlando Bloom. The studio got exactly what they bargained for in him. Hot off supporting roles in The Lord of the Rings trilogy & co-leading Pirates of the Caribbean, Bloom had also starred in the sword and sandal hit Troy a year earlier in a similar release frame. He also agreed to put on weight gaining twenty pounds for the role. He was primed and ready to hold his own epic. He’s also incredibly handsome; I remarked on this several times during the often beautiful film. John Mathieson’s (Logan, Gladiator) cinematography does a lot of heavy lifting, however it helps to have Eva Green at the centre in her English language debut. Twenty-five at the time, she does not bring the playful sophistication of later roles like Penny Dreadful, 300: Rise of an Empire, or Dumbo to name a few and she has the looks of Helen of Troy worth starting a war over. You can see the studio’s logic in gambling on anchoring the spectacle in two very young gorgeous leads to try and bring in a younger audience. It did not work however. Over two-thirds of the opening weekend audience were over twenty-five and the prime summer release date (previously held by Spider-Man and X2) was the lowest attended of its frame in fourteen years. Scott attributes this to broad mismarketing of the film in the vein of Gladiator when it was more spiritually minded evidenced by its success in Arabic-speaking countries. However medieval films are overall a tough sell and you need an actor who can bring something beyond the source material to interest audiences and Bloom just does not cut it.
Fortunately there are many great actors here who do bring it to life. Liam Neeson is terrific as usual in his standard bearing mentor role, carrying around the weight of his sins like a good Catholic. In other words it is a typically great Liam Neeson performance. His character Barisan does not need to explain much as we understand all we need to know from his failure to express his emotions. Despite his tall stature he seems embarrassed to be seen and carries great shame towards his privilege despite mostly dignified behaviour onscreen. Other great performances in that standout are Brendan Gleeson, gleefully hamming it up as Raynald in a career-best performance. He is the only person in this film having fun and I enjoyed every minute of seeing him onscreen. Michael Sheen is a similar scoundrel but without much fun opens the film opposite Orlando Bloom. This is an early version of the role Sheen would return to in shows like The Good Fight and Prodigal Son. Amazingly, my mother recognized a masked and uncredited Edward Norton as King Baldwin. The most intriguing role, he provides the soul of the film. And did I mention how gorgeous Eva Green is? It is a shame her character is only defined by the men in her life; her son, husband, and love interest. As such she has since further improved as an actress and would probably bring much more to such a role today.
William Monahan’s script is genuine, but its themes would need to be altered in order to accommodate its central character weakness. Balian, (as he’s called) is not very interesting, yet the events surrounding him are. This should be the story about a man who discovers at the centre of a conflict that his DESTINY is to defend Jerusalem. Instead, it is a semi-romantic film about a divine nobody turned tactical genius that the movie constantly questions in relation to others. The movie can never get over its central character problem which does not fill up the scope required to deliver such a masterpiece. I recall upon first viewing being amazed at the scale of action sequences only someone as experienced as Scott could direct [take a look at any one of the Special Features on his films] but the climax though exciting does not effectively tie the rest of the film together. I quite liked the romantic angle but it just hangs there. There is plenty to like here but it is far from a clear-headed picture.
Kingdom of Heaven is a good film. It has good performances and is shot handsomely with handsome actors. It is a modern epic in length and scope made by a prolific and intelligent director. The Director’s Cut comes close to realizing much of the film’s promise but it cannot fix the central character problem that holds it back from greatness. The studio saw this upon release and cut down the running time, initial audiences saw it and partly dismissed it, I saw it, liked it and left it. Now that the Director’s Cut allows a better version of the film to be discovered by a new audience, I am just trying to manage expectations better than they were the first time.
The Director’s Cut is still the preferred version, but it is not among Ridley Scott’s best he turns out roughly once a decade:
1979 – Alien
1982 – Blade Runner
1991 – Thelma & Louise
2000 – Gladiator
2007 – *American Gangster, an outlier that is actually my personal favourite.
2015 – The Martian
Kingdom of Heaven belongs in the under-looked second tier category of Scott films:
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Matchstick Men (2003)
The Counselor (2013)
All The Money in the World (2017)
Flaws a reader might criticize:
- On being a critical and negative hack: I pay for what I watch, I owe the studios nothing.
- Citing IGN: For what it’s worth [FWIW] I understand IGN’s worth more as a cultural barometer due to its structural lack of consistency it just took some time.
Their 9.5 underscore of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves showed their lack of ability to recognize greatness. The PS3 reviewers Greg Miller and Colin Moriarty [since left] were too old to review a T for Teen game and had trouble getting passed the tutorials. IGN’s 10/10 review of Uncharted 3 was wrongly scored higher to compensate. Other recent perfect scores like Red Dead Redemption 2; it’s quantity over quality, and Joker; giving points for plagiarism, maintain a culture of fun subjectivity.
- If you think I don’t like anything I just have higher standards than you.
Additional Bibliographies not previously cited:
- Box Office Mojo article on Kingdom of Heaven (courtesy of The Way Back Machine):
- Roger Ebert Review: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/kingdom-of-heaven-2005/