Thursday, June 02, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven

"The fashion now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the medieval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other." (SAKI)

Critic Roger Ebert has bizarrely described Ridley Scott's new epic as "a profound work of faith". It's more like a profound work of liberal agnosticism (and I'm not so sure it's all that profound either.)

It's a film that shares the themes, style and quality of 1492: Conquest of Paradise - as opposed to those of the largely more satisfying Gladiator. Whereas Scott's conquistador epic took time to show us the dream before it becomes a nightmare, Kingdom of Heaven never properly addresses the daring and enthusiasm of the crusaders. Instead we get a bleak opening sequence which makes more than a nod to The Seventh Seal and the rest of the drama never quite shakes off this Bergmanesque gloom.

Richard the Lionheart does get to make one of his customary epilogical entrances looking very much like every schoolboy's image of the Crusader, but the overtly good-intentioned Godfrey and Tiberias embody in physical terms at least a worn out and well-scarred ideal.

Bloom is well-cast as the wry yet dashing young blacksmith turned knight, courtly lover and proto American settler. But by the end of the film the script has strangely required him to mutate into a reincarnation of Russell Crowe's Maximus Decimus, i.e. an inspirational, speechifying warlord with the tactical and strategic military nouse to match his wily saracen opponent. In this latter role he fails, though not entirely dismally. (viz Troy.)

Much has been made of the historical near-accuracy of Kingdom of Heaven. That episode where Guy de Lusignan attempts to ensnare Saladin within the rules of Middle-Eastern hospitality by passing the slush puppy to Reynald de Chatillon is an actual recorded event. Gladiator had a greater ratio of fiction to history and I sense that this allowed its makers more freedom (And according to a friend of mine with a doctorate in Classical studies the end result is faithful in its spirit at least.) As we saw with 1492 a determination to be true to historical events and protagonists, involves forcing them to conform to the standard Hollywood dramatic form, which in turn requires that a certain number of key individuals are pared down to barely one-dimensional villainhood. (I agree with one critic who thinks Jeremy Irons' character Tiberias looks like a baddy that at the last minute was told to be nice!)

Now I can't claim to have a detailed knowledge of medieval medicine, but these crusaders seem to be remarkably well-informed about the causes of infection. Was this knowledge somehow lost before the Black Death? I also think it's vaguely anachronistic that a mother would commit suicide over the loss of a child.

That shipwreck is utterly unnecessary. All those bodies laid out neatly on the beach and only Balian and one horse conveniently alive enough to carry on the crusade.

Scott's visual idiom is now as distinctive as that of a director of animations like Miyazaki. There are abundant examples in this film of the things he does well:

- Vistas that feature a seamless blending of sets, people and CGI effects
- Armies drawing close for battle. (His close-up battle sequences are far less convincing though.)
- Atmospheric interiors

One atmospheric interior that I objected to however was that of the Reales Alcázares in Seville, made to stand in as the palace of the king of Jerusalem. Personal familiarity with that building may make the insistent use of the location that much more more bothersome, but this is such a famous and well-visited Iberian landmark. It's a bit like making a film about the Raj using Brighton Pavillion as the main location. (Or the Taj Mahal in a film about Brighton!)

Whatever else can be said about Scott's reconstruction of history, I'm sure the late Edward Said would have chided at his representation of 'orientals'. (He'd surely point to the various scenes inspired by Occidentals (i.e. Westerns), which carry the implication that Arab Muslims are functionally interchangeable with the redskins of the American plains.)

I'm not going to comment on how relevant this film is to the War on Terror, but suffice to say throughout the film characters are practically lining up to make unrealistically temperate assessments of the theo/geo-politics of their time.

To borrow an analytical model from Chris Anderson, there was perhaps a wider dynamic range of responses to infidels throughout the period of the early middle ages. Where the two civilisations collided you were indeed as likely to witness cultural miscegenation as relentless hostility, but tolerance does not necessarily imply wishy-washy eucumenical reasonableness of the kind that Balian himself personifies.

The influence of Peter Jackson's LOTR on both Revenge of the Sith and Kingdom of Heaven is conspicuous, though in The Two Towers Jackson gave us a better sense of who is inside Helm's Deep and why we should care about them than Scott does with the similarly-beseiged occupants of Jerusalem.

Ebert concludes that this film "will be absorbed in those staples of all historical epics, battle and romance". The trouble is that it kind of comes pre-absorbed.

V found the whole thing an umcomfortable experience; she tried to focus on enjoying the action and ignoring the story but even then couldn't find anything to really latch onto. "There's nothing new...". It made me recall how she lapped up the intensity of the flirtation between Jin and Mei in The House of Flying Daggers, but the tryst between Balian and Sybilla is little more than a plot vehicle here.

Ridley Scott surely has a better idea than George Lucas about the difference between the wood and the trees, but seeing this film again reminded of that conversation with Ted last Friday, where we discussed how the effect-loaded Star Wars prequels were the end product of improved means serving sadly diminished ends.

How long before someone decides to re-make El Cid?

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