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Reflections on "Kingdom of Heaven"
"Kingdom of Heaven" has been the subject of considerable debate and has divided the film-going public - they appear to either love it or hate it.
This is the story of Balian, a humble blacksmith in the southern France of 1184 who, following the death of his child and suicide of his wife, seeks redemption and direction by accompanying his father to Jerusalem. There he becomes embroiled in religious and political machinations which result in outright war between Christians and Saracens, and a Saracen-led attack on Christian-held Jerusalem, defended by Balian and a handful of knights.
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I can understand the misgivings of various reviewers. It most certainly is not the action epic many may have expected. I thought it had great pace and clarity of purpose. The characters don't develop particularly, but they are nicely fleshed out and observed. While there is little personal evolution or inner conflict, the characters drive the plot developments and themes very smoothly. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott, I found the film visually quite stunning, exciting, brutal in places, tender in other places, and above all thoughtful to the point of being spiritual, with the intelligent and literate script touching on themes perhaps not regarded as "normal" material for a big budget commercial film.
There are blistering action scenes, yet the character building scenes which inform them are given considerable prominence and are actually more memorable than the action sequences. I have to say I don't particularly like the vogue for editing action scenes in the jarring and disjointed manner used here. While it is effective in conveying the chaos and violence of conflict, it also causes confusion and a lack of clarity. I might add that this is not a particularly modern device - I seem to remember being just as confused by the editing of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" which was made in the late sixties!
In terms of performance, numerous British stalwarts (Neeson, Thewlis, Irons, Gleeson and a whole raft of well known faces) play with great skill and conviction, with each making his role his own. Ghassan Massoud and Alexander Siddiq are equally convincing in their respective Saracen roles, giving their characters dignity and virtue. Eva Green isn't given a great deal to do, but she is suitably alluring and soulful when required.
The revelation, however, is Orlando Bloom as Balian. Although not required to vary his performance to any great extent, he manages to convince as the virtuous but somewhat depressed knight who seeks purpose and direction by journeying to Jerusalem. Not an obvious choice to portray a warrior and leader of men, he nonetheless exudes quiet determination based on confidence in his humanistic principles - an idealist who is weary of religion-infested politics. This he achieves less through the words he speaks than by means of facial expression and body language - a far more gifted and compelling actor than I had previously given him credit for.
The film has been criticised for its rather one-sided portrayal of religious extremism and intolerance. The Christian Crusaders in general, but more particularly the Knights Templar are depicted as self-serving and profiteering, using their religion and position as a front for self-advancement. Quite how this sits with the political correctness the film has also been accused of, I am none too sure, though the film could perhaps have been more even-handed in its criticism of Muslims who, I am sure, also had their fair share of extremists and opportunists. However, it should be borne in mind that we see events based largely on Balian's experience and it is his disillusionment with the representatives of the Christian church that compels him to travel to Jerusalem to seek direction (and redemption, as he has committed a most serious crime).
As far as historical accuracy is concerned, I think enough attention has been paid to historical detail to give validity to the themes and philosophy behind the film, but this is certainly not enough to allow it to be considered as a historically accurate account of events.
What then are the themes of the film?
First and foremost it is a tale that invites its audience to appreciate the advantages of tolerance - the mutual acceptance of cultures and creeds, and the rejection of leaders who use religion as a front or a means of pursuing political ambition and personal advancement.
It questions the role of religion, or more particularly religious dogma and tradition, in everyday life and society. Reaction should be tempered by reason and moderation, while dogma and religious fervour should be tempered by common humanity.
When Balian loses his wife and child his grief causes him to lose faith. He believes in nothing. Instead he acts by conscience and recognises there is more than one way of looking at things, but all are equally valid. He acts to try to help others and make improvements. He does not necessarily act in accordance with the church's interpretation of the scriptures, nor blindly on the orders of those in authority. He has become an independent thinker and believes only in trying to help and defend others.
The suggestion appears to be that a system of morality is possible without basis in religion (indeed at one point it is even suggested that Jesus himself might not recognise the values upheld in his name). What matters is a respect for human life and this is placed above religious artefacts and dictates, as symbolised by Balian's willingness to destroy Jerusalem rather than allow a massacre.
Overall the film has come in for a great deal of criticism which, it seems to me, is largely unfair. The film should be judged on its own merits and failings, and certainly not on whether or not it met the false expectations of a particular section of the film-going public.
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