Sunday, May 27, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.16: Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (Director's Cut)

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

Grade: 91 (A)

I probably should have forgone “Ridley Scott’s best film since Blade Runner” until I had caught up with all of his most acclaimed films. I described Thelma & Louise as such, but Black Hawk Down would easily rival it. And with Prometheus looking like Scott’s most promising film in some time, it might be better to not throw the phrase around again and make it seem meaningless. But Kingdom of Heaven is one of Scott’s very best films, his most ambitious since Blade Runner, and one of the most underrated films of the 2000s.

That might surprise some, considering the film’s reputation. Released in 2005 to box office disappointment and critical shrugs, Kingdom of Heaven was knocked for its choppy pacing, poorly defined characters, subplots that went nowhere, poorly thought out love story, and thin connections to the modern religious conflict. My memories of Kingdom of Heaven were dismissive, and a repeat viewing didn’t do it any favors (Grade: C+). When the film received a Director’s Cut release on DVD, I ignored it. Too many of Scott’s recent films (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster) have received extended cuts that added in deleted scenes against the director’s wishes. I truly didn’t believe that a new version of Kingdom of Heaven could be much better.

It is. Scott was unhappy with the film’s treatment, which trimmed the 191-minute film to just under two-and-a-half hours. The restored version doesn’t just add more time- it adds the real meat of the character’s relationships, a sense of who they are and why they make their decisions, a more cohesive structure, a brisker pace (longer, but things cohere now), and real thematic weight. Kingdom of Heaven’s Director’s Cut is no longer “Gladiator goes to the Crusades”- it’s a rousing epic in the style of Lawrence of Arabia, Seven Samurai, or the more recent Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The four-disc DVD splits the film into a roadshow presentation, complete with an Overture, an Intermission (continue Part 2 on Disc 2), and an Entr’acte. This is the way the movie should have been seen, and now that it exists, it’s the only way the movie should be seen. Forget the bastardized theatrical version. Had the film been released as originally intended, it likely would have been received as one of the best films of 2005. As it is, too many people still need to rediscover it.

1184, France: blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) is haunted by his wife’s suicide and shunned by the villagers. His scheming priest half-brother (Michael Sheen) manipulates him and uses him to get in the good graces of the town’s lord. One day, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) arrives with his group of Crusaders, ostensibly to visit with his nephew, who leads the town. Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and he implores his son to join him on the way to Jerusalem, where he serves the king. Along the way, Godfrey is mortally wounded by his scheming nephew. He knights his son and orders him to go to Jerusalem, serve the king, and protect the helpless before succumbing to his wounds.

 In Jerusalem, Balian befriends Raymond of Tiberius (Jeremy Irons), a knight who wishes for peace with the Muslims, and the peace-inclined King Baldwin (Edward Norton), who’s dying of leprosy. Raymond clashes with Raynald of Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), a knight guilty of massacring Muslim caravans, while Balian finds a rival in the power-hungry Guy of Lusignon (Marton Czokas) and a love in Guy’s wife (and Baldwin’s sister) Princess Sibylla (Eva Green). As King Baldwin’s health weakens and Guy seems poised to take over, the conflict with Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) looms, and Balian must take leadership to defend the people of Jerusalem and find a peaceful solution.

 In many ways, Kingdom of Heaven feels like the film Scott has been building to his whole career. It features his most successful religious themes since Blade Runner, a more successful look at religion in history than 1492, a strong female character to rival either Thelma or Louise, a doomed sea voyage a la White Squall, heavy use of military characters (The Duellists, G.I. Jane, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down), and use of production design that makes Gladiator look like The Room. It isn’t just that the production design is intricate (although the look of the castles, armor, and cities is awe-inspiring…and with minimal CGI). It’s that more than any of Scott’s films since Blade Runner, the production design is essential. The French village from the beginning doesn’t seem as harsh without the shot of Michael Sheen picking a maggot out of an apple. Balian’s early existential crisis doesn’t hit without the tactile feelings of cold winter airs or his dank blacksmith tavern. His success in Jerusalem doesn’t seem quite as wonderful without his vast land. Jerusalem looks as rapturous as any city designed for a deity should, while its leprous leader hides behind a golden mask, a gentle and wise soul marred by a condition that causes his body to fall warp and deteriorate.

Scott’s great influences of the past return. Kingdom of Heaven is filled with enough atmospheric lighting to make Scott-favorite Orson Welles proud, and the combination with William Monahan’s spectacular, Shakespeare-influenced script recalls Welles’ finest Shakespeare films (Othello, Chimes at Midnight). Scott’s Kubrick-like perfectionist attention to detail is as clear as it has been since his early heyday. His love of opera comes through when uses the opera piece composed by Hans Zimmer specifically for Scott’s Hannibal (in that film’s one truly great scene) for a beautiful burial scene that’s as emotional as anything Scott ever shot. As for the film’s epic structure- Scott’s own Gladiator inevitably comes to mind, but Scott really combines the modern epic style of Lord of the Rings (particularly in a final battle that recalls Helm’s Deep) and the old-fashioned epics of the past, particulary Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which features a similar “protect the people” storyline) and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (which also features heavy religious themes and sympathetic portrayal of Muslims). Bonus: the roadshow presentation that recalls how Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur would have been viewed in the past and highlights how fantastic Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is.

Kingdom of Heaven features some of the most gorgeous images in any of Scott’s films. The film has all of the old stand-bys- snow floating through the air, shafts of light, blue haze (in this case from cold winter skies), heavy use of natural light and fire, the ubiquitous blue mist- but the film features gorgeous lyrical imagery that rivals anything Scott ever put on film. A match cut brings together Balian’s happy past with his wife and his harsh modern realities (this shot was inexplicably left out of the theatrical version). Sheen’s character is enveloped in flame to suggest the fires of hell taking a fanatical man. Godfrey’s final moments have the same deliberate pace of the Ridley Scott of old (which contrasts beautifully with the quick-paced action of the battle scenes). Heavy smoke and incense drapes Balian in a bathhouse. Balian and Sibylla suggestively blow out the candles before they make love for the first time.

Scott’s direction of the battle scenes is exceptional- the build-up and scope is greater than that of Gladiator, and the scenes themselves have greater impact. It’s in part because this is Scott’s most thoughtful look at military warfare in his career. Before his death, Godfrey charges his son to be a good knight. But it is not enough just to fight, nor is it wise to fight for religion. Instead, he must fight for goodness, to protect the people and the king. Baldwin shares this view, and his scene of diplomacy with Saladin is incredible, but Guy and Raynald use the military for less noble pursuits. Ostensibly fighting for God, they really fight for their own glory. A fierce and righteous retribution comes upon them, but when Balian uses military tactics to defend rather than to attack, there’s a more noble cause, and it’s easier to root for him.

But Kingdom of Heaven is even more impressive on a character level. Scott casts each character to perfection: Michael Sheen sells his weasely priest, a perfect representation of the church’s fanatical past, where the marvelous David Thewlis brings a more sensitive and thoughtful side to his religious Crusader, a man with more respect for God than religion (“religion is for fanatics…holiness lies in right action and courage for the defenseless”); there are theories that the character may be an angel. Jeremy Irons brings a more high-class  thoughtfulness and dignity to Raymond, a man concerned for his king, the people, and harmony in the region, while Brendan Gleeson contrasts him perfectly as the fanatical Raynald, whose righteous indignation and Crusader’s fury puts the kingdom in jeopardy. Marton Czokas hasn’t had many great roles in the years since Kingdom of Heaven, which is a shame: he’s the perfect villain for Kingdom of Heaven, a portrait of evil in greed, ego, and political opportunism.

Liam Neeson has played so many mentor characters in his career (The Phantom Menace, Gangs of New York, the same year’s Batman Begins) that it’s easy to dismiss this as “just another mentor role” on first glance. But the Director’s Cut expands the role to being one of the most effective father-son relationships in Scott’s filmography (right up there with Blade Runner and Gladiator). Balian’s own son has died (another aspect left out of the theatrical version)- he’s a father without a son (when Balian burns his child’s clothes and cradle, it’s a moment of astounding visual storytelling). Godfrey, too, is a father without a son, and his reluctance to reveal himself to his son makes more sense in the Director’s Cut because there’s more build-up to it, and his death is more meaningful. Balian has only just learned of his father’s existence, and now he’s going to lose him. In his final moments, he charges his son to “create a better world”- a father’s dying wish to his only son. Neeson brings such gravitas to his small but vital role that his presence informs the rest of the film- indeed, he’s so highly considered as a truly moral man by Sibylla, Tiberius, and Baldwin that it’s easy to see how they would be so welcoming to his equally noble son.

The golden age of Edward Norton seems to have passed- the actor is too widely regarded as “that dick who tries to take creative control over every project”- which is a shame, considering how terrific he is here. We never see Norton’s face- Baldwin wears a mask, and when Sibylla finally removes it the face is deformed- but his movements and line-readings are so specific and deeply felt that the performance could be seen as a master class on acting. Baldwin is a deeply moral and intelligent man- a strong character with a weak body- and his anger towards Raynald after he massacres a Muslim caravan is palpable. He forces Raynald to kiss his leprous hand (Scott’s close-up on the bloodied fingers is highly effective), and beats him with a stick until he has no strength yet. The tides of conflict and religious war is too much for his frail body.

In the film’s theatrical cut, Eva Green’s performance is perhaps the greatest casualty. Where Irons, Neeson, Gleeson, and Norton all make strong impressions in both versions of the film, Green’s Sibylla seemed like a needless love subplot thrown in just because the film needs a love subplot. In the Director’s Cut, the subplot finds its passion and the character her complexity. Green had made an impression in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers two years before (and her performance in Casino Royale is one of the better Bond girls), but this remains her finest performance. Sibylla is a woman forced to put on a mask for the world- she is a princess- and pretend that her husband Guy isn’t a complete bastard (she was forced to marry him at 15). She’s attracted to Balian’s dignity and sense of goodness. She’s the first woman he’s truly spoken to since his wife died. When she visits his home, he provides her hospitality and warmth, and she responds to his ingenuity on the farm. Scott gives Green several wonderful, tender love scenes with Bloom- her washing the dirt from his face, their lovemaking in the dark, a morning after with pomegranate as a forbidden fruit. It’s easy to see why Baldwin wishes for her to end up with Balian instead of the odious Guy.

But where the romance provides a terrific introduction to the character, the film’s second half forces Green to face unspeakable tragedy. Her brother’s health weighs heavily on her soul, and her final moments with him are spectacular. When her son, the next male blood heir to the throne, is diagnosed with leprosy, she poisons him rather than let him deteriorate. It’s an impossible situation that brings Guy to the throne (“she let her son go…along with Jerusalem with it”), but her actions, ultimately are compassionate. She does not want her son to suffer the same way her beloved brother did. It’s a situation straight out of Shakespearean tragedy. Just as Shakespearean tragedy built off of Greek tragedy, Kingdom of Heaven takes the more direct tragedy of Gladiator and builds onto it with greater weight, deeper characters, and more ambitious themes.

Orlando Bloom’s performance was poorly received when the film was first released, not without reason. The inexpressive blandness of Bloom’s work in Pirates of the Caribbean and Troy still seemed present- he wasn’t as actively bad, but the character’s religious crisis never came through and he was constantly upstaged by the supporting cast. The Director’s Cut improves this, however. Bloom isn’t terrific in the role- it’s one time where Ridley Scott could and should have casted Russell Crowe, or alternatively someone more magnetic like Christian Bale, and didn’t- but Monahan’s script is so strong he mostly works. In Bloom’s hands, Balian works best as an audience surrogate- a man who comes into contact with strong personalities and is swept up by them (think Keanu Reeves in The Matrix). Might the film have been improved by someone who could bring Balian’s crisis of faith and moral uprightness across with more charisma? Probably. Is it actively harmed by Bloom’s work? No. There are even a few scenes where he’s actively good, and it’s likely the best performance we’ll ever see out of him.

Balian’s crisis of faith didn’t work in the theatrical cut, but that’s largely from what was omitted more than Bloom’s performance. In the Director’s Cut, the crisis is far clearer- Balian’s torment comes not only from his wife’s suicide, but the torment of his fanatical priest brother and the knowledge that suicide was considered a mortal sin by the Catholic Church at the time. His wife has been condemned, treated like a monster, and even beheaded at her burial. His journey to Jerusalem with Godfrey makes more sense now. He travels to erase his sins and the sins of his wife. But religious awakening proves elusive even in the Holy Land- even at the spot of Christ’s crucifixion, he cannot feel God’s presence. His anger over his wife’s death, and later over Baldwin’s death and Guy’s takeover, is palpable. When he uses a spark to set a bush on fire, he taunts “Where is your Moses? I did not hear it speak.” He is nonetheless a man of moral righteousness- when Baldwin suggests that he kill Guy to take Sibylla as his wife, he refuses.

Kingdom of Heaven was released smack-dab in the middle of America’s War on Terror, in the same year as Spielberg’s masterful Munich and Rob Zombie’s terrific horror movie/war allegory The Devil’s Rejects. Kingdom of Heaven is perhaps the best of the bunch. The film’s portrayal of the Crusades was criticized by some as being romanticized and inaccurate, and indeed the events were more brutal and filled with religious hatred than portrayed. But it’s an intentional choice on the parts of Scott and Monahan to connect the film’s story to modern events.

The hawkish side of the Crusaders- Guy, Raynald- have no mercy or empathy for the Islamic people. “Kill an infidel for the path to heaven”, one crusader says. Guy marks Godfrey as a “traitor to Christians” for his sympathetic views. These men fight for the Pope and the Catholic church of the time, and for their own sense of righteousness, “not for Christ”, as Raymond argues. They believe that God wills the destruction of Islam, and that diplomatic Christianity has little use. They do not listen to reason or conscience.

Under Baldwin, however, there is a kingdom of conscience. Muslims are allowed prayers, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims can work and trade together, not because of business, but because it’s right. The more understanding and diplomatic view towards Muslims appeals to Balian, who refused to take a slave in Islamic military man Imad ad-Din (an excellent Alexander Siddig channeling Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia). That mercy later saves his life with Islamic leader Saladin spares his life. Baldwin and Saladin can make a better world. When the film reaches the final battle, Balian recognizes in his speech the Islamic claim to the Holy Land, and argues that they should no longer fight for religion, but for survival and protection of Jerusalem’s people.

The film’s portrait of Saladin is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of Islam in Hollywood history (the industry has a reputation for demonizing Muslims). Excellently played by Ghassan Massoud, Saladin is a shrewd military tactician and a man more than willing to kill when it is necessary or deserved (Raynald), but he is a deeply moral man with respect for Christianity. He is more than willing to find diplomatic solutions with Baldwin in the early sections of the film, and the end sees him stop the siege of Jerusalem in order to find reason with Balian. He agrees to provide safe passage for Christians from Jerusalem after he defeats their army. When Balian comments that Christians butchered Muslims when they took over the Holy Land, he remarks “I am not those men”, and, in a spectacular sequence, picks up a cross that had fallen during a battle.

Mortality is the dominant theme in Scott’s work, and it’s fully explored here. What separates Balian, Baldwin, and Saladin from Guy and Raynald is their respect for life. Balian’s torment over his wife’s death doesn’t reach peak levels until he learns that her body was disrespected and that she faces damnation. When his father dies, he is obligated to fulfill his wishes and become a beacon of hope and justice in the Holy Land. When the Muslim caravan is slaughtered by Raynald’s men, Baldwin promises to punish him for the wrong. When Baldwin dies, then, the consequences are an end to that respect for life until Balian takes over. Balian’s respect for the dead is questioned during battle when he burns the bodies of the dead rather than giving them proper burial, but it is to save the rest of the people from disease. “God will understand. If he does not, then he is not God, and we need not worry”. A final confrontation with Guy (another sequence thoughtlessly omitted in the theatrical cut) shows Balian refusing to strike Guy down in a mercy scene reminiscent of the ending of Scott’s first film, The Duellists.

When Balian is met by the king of England (Richard the Lionheart, who would appear in Scott’s later film Robin Hood), he refuses. He’s found his redemption and a new love. He has no need for crusades for glory. Kingdom of Heaven is, ultimately, a plea of tolerance in the form of a rousing action-epic. In a final note, the film details a final crusade that lasted three years and brought an uneasy truce between Christians and Muslims.  As the final title card reads: “Nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive.”

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