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Kingdom of Heaven, 2005. Directed by Ridley Scott. Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Eva Green, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, Marton Csokas, Alexander Siddig, Ghassan Massoud.

Synopsis: Balian, a blacksmith, has just lost his wife to suicide. Into his grief rides Lord Godfrey of Ibelin, who claims that Balian is his bastard son. Godfrey invites him to join his household in the Holy Land, where Godfrey is one of the key pieces in a fragile truce between Baldwin, the leper king of Jerusalem, and Saladin. At first, Balian refuses, but after an altercation with his parish priest, he thinks otherwise. On the road to Jerusalem, Godfrey is mortally wounded, but makes Balian both a knight and his heir before he dies. Also on the way to Jerusalem, Balian first encounters Guy de Lusignan, a Templar whose views of the Saracens is significantly less enlightened than those held by Godfrey and his allies. De Lusignan has married King Baldwin's sister, and bides his time before he can assume Baldwin's throne and launch a holy war against Saladin and all of Islam. Balian is caught in the middle of the power play, all the while attempting to be the best Knight he can. He makes admirers of his enemies when he spares, then frees, a Saracen officer, then again when he launches a suicidal cavalry charge against the assembled host of Saladin in order to save the commoners caught in the open. When, at last, Baldwin dies and de Lusignan launches his ill-fated holy war, Balian is left to defend Jerusalem against all odds...

Both Sides Against the Middle: Given the current political climate, the geo-political subtexts of Kingdom of Heaven are surprising. Not only does the film balance the motives of the Muslim and Christian characters, alike, but it asks very specific questions about conflict in the Middle East that resonate to this very day. "What is Jerusalem worth?" Balian asks Saladin. "Nothing," Saladin replies, "Everything." The curious thing about this film is that it is a film that could not have been released in the United States even two years ago. The way it frames its questions seems a specific confrontation with current American foreign policy. The Kingdom of Heaven postulated by this film is not built on war, but on tolerance, respect, and diplomacy. I had a hard time reconciling this film with its maker, Ridley Scott, with Scott's last epic, Black Hawk Down, being to my eyes an exercise in jingoistic porn for a nation of hawks. Is Scott a bellweather for the political mood of the times? Maybe. If so, then this movie bodes ill for the current junta, based as it is on a re-evaluation of the motives for war. This is a movie built on second thoughts. Were I to schedule this movie as part of a double feature, I would pair it not with Scott's Gladiator (which this film superficially resembles), but with Erroll Morris's The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara suggests that we must "be prepared to re-examine our reasoning." As McNamara suggests in that film, it is imperative to get into the skin of the other guy if one is to avoid wars. Kingdom of Heaven has absorbed this lesson. The film's refusal to demonize its Islamic antagonists raises eyebrows. And Kingdom of Heaven is certainly confrontational when it comes to religious fanatics, all of whom are shown to be butchers, cowards, and fools by turns.

In any event, the film is Scott's best film in well over a decade, in spite of Orlando Bloom's sullen lead performance. In Bloom's defence, the filmmakers haven't asked him to do anything more than scowl through the whole movie, so I'll not fault him. Boy, howdy, does Ghassan Massoud as Saladin make the viewer wish that the filmakers had approached the material from the OTHER side of the cultural divide, because whenever he's on screen, you can't take your eyes off of him. Scott is still in love with that annoying bleach transfer process that muddies up the cinematography, but at least he hasn't drenched the film in that gawdawful golden light he used for Gladiator--there are long passages that appear to have been filmed in (*gasp*) natural light. The supporting performances are all pleasurable, particularly Jeremy Irons, who seems to have recovered his muse here, and David Thewlis, who plays kindness even better than he plays rat bastards. Edward Norton's character, King Baldwin the leper, is particularly fascinating, even from behind a silver mask. Saladin steals every scene he's in. Of course, the film is being sold to the public on the strength of the spectacle, and while there is spectacle aplenty, one actually wishes there were less of it and more scenes between characters.When was the last time anyone made an action movie where the characters were the point of interest? All in all, it's a pretty good movie.

As a side note, I really must take in more opening day Friday afternoon showings. The print was immaculate and the audience was respectful. It let out just as an evening crowd dominated by teenagers was filing in, and if I had been in THAT audience, I'm sure that the experience wouldn't have been nearly so good...