Droid defines the decades best movies – #18 Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Directors Cut
When I first saw ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ at the cinema I thought it was garbage. It was ‘Gladiator’ all over again, except with an actor in the lead who would be more suited to miming in a boy band than leading the defence of Jerusalem against the vast Muslim army. It felt slight, despite it’s almost two and a half hour running time. There was little depth to the relationships and it seemed to touch on a subject then scuttle off in search of the nearest action scene.
A few years after I’d stricken it from the record, I noticed nattering amongst the ranks that a newly released Directors Cut had not only resurrected this flick from it’s shallow grave but gave it a brand new haircut and a shiny new suit as well. So I checked out the re-released version, risking 194 minutes of my oh so precious time, and was absolutely amazed by what I saw. It’s essentially the same film, but about ten times better. What a difference 50 minutes can make.
It’s 1184, and in a small village in France, blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) has just buried his wife. According to Christian beliefs, as a suicide (caused by grief from the loss of their son) she will spend eternity in hell. Soon after, Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) comes seeking Balian, explaining that he is his father, and asks him to join him in Jerusalem. With the possibility of atoning for his wife’s sins as well as his own, he reluctantly agrees (the situation doesn’t allow for much else). While en route, Godfrey is killed, and Balian inherits not only his fathers title, but also becomes a knight of the kingdom. He eventually leads the defence of Jerusalem against Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) and the Muslim army who are fighting to reclaim the holy city.
‘Kingdom of Heaven’ has a terrific cast. Liam Neeson and David Thewlis are effective early on, and once we get to Jerusalem we are introduced to Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Brendan Gleeson, Martin Csokas and an unrecognisable Edward Norton. The only actor that feels wrong is Orlando Bloom. In the Directors Cut, his character is fleshed out and much more effective than the Theatrical version. But the problem remains the same. It’s just difficult to suspend disbelief and accept that he could be a knight, let alone a leader of people. In some scenes it appears he can barely lift the sword, let alone wield it effectively. It’s not a question of effort, because Bloom tries his best. It’s a cliché, but he just doesn’t have the necessary gravitas for the role. I imagine Russell Crowe in the role and I can safely say this would be in my Top 10 of the decade.
But the actor I am completely bewildered by is Brendan Gleeson. He plays his character as such a cartoonish buffoon that it stands outside every other character in the film. It’s a complete miscalculation and his screen time is thankfully brief. Martin Csokas is suitably hateful as the self-serving snake Guy, and Eva Green is both noble and conflicted as Princess Sibylla. The stand out performances are from Ghassan Massoud as the cool as a cucumber Saladin and Alexander Siddig as Imad ad-Din. Both create memorable, noble characters from their too few scenes.
But the most amazing performance is Edward Norton as the leper King Baldwin. Hidden behind a metal mask so that we only see his eyes, it is truly a remarkable performance and one that, if this were the version released theatrically, would have been universally praised. When I saw the film at the cinema, I didn’t even realise he was in it. He creates the character entirely through body language, his expressive eyes and distinct delivery of dialogue. It’s my favourite performance of his by a long shot and ranks up there with the best I’ve seen.
Ridley Scott is a great director. But he’s got a huge problem with consistency. When he’s good, his movies are brilliant. But when he’s not, his movies are unwatchable garbage. Here he manages both those feats with the same movie. Whoever convinced him to allow the edited version to be released should be fed to the chipper. The Directors Cut has so many fascinating subplots and the characters are fleshed out so that we actually understand their motivations. The subplot with Princess Sibylla’s son is a prime example. Without it, Sibylla seems to make random decisions that make no sense. When included in the context of the film, it explains everything and lends the film an emotional weight it didn’t have before. It’s actually fascinating from a filmmaking perspective just to see the difference these changes have made. Unfortunately, the success of this convinced me to watch the ‘Troy’ Directors Cut, hoping for lightening to strike twice. It didn’t. It’s just as unwatchable as before, just longer. I daren’t go near the ‘Alexander’ Directors Cut.
‘Kingdom of Heaven’ Directors Cut is a flawed, almost, not quite, very near masterpiece. Despite it’s flaws, it ranks second only to Alien as my favourite Ridley Scott film and is one of my favourite of the decade.