Friday, October 16, 2015

This is not heaven, it's the world—and there's troubles in it


A plea for tolerance that you think about more than you feel, and which you likely won't think about too hard, at that.  But you must admit, it is made with some truly awesome violence.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by William Monohan
With Orlando Bloom (Balian), Liam Neeson (Baron Godfrey of Ibelin), Ed Norton (King Baldwin IV), Eva Green (Sybilla), Jeremy Irons (Tiberias), Marton Csokas (Guy de Lusignan), Brendan Gleeson (Raynald de Chatillon), Alexander Siddig (Imad), and Ghassan Massoud (Salah ad-Din)

Spoiler alert: you may or may not be surprised to learn that the Crusader state of Jerusalem no longer exists

What Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven is not is a story about the Crusades.  Certainly, Kingdom takes the First Kingdom of Jerusalem as its setting.  It uses the ongoing Christian attempt to establish a viable kingdom in the Levant, against the wishes of the Muslims who lived there, as the wellspring of its narrative conflict.  But it is not about the Crusades.

The Crusades are a difficult bit of history—and I don't mean they're fraught with modern-day consequence, although there's that too.  I mean they're just fucking hard: the Crusades rival the densest fantasy novels for the number of people you need to keep track of, who came from families you've never heard of, who went to places that sound made up, and who carved out from their Holy Land a fractured network of small and short-lived colonies.  Thus, the very first thing to praise about William Monahan's script is the way it simplifies a complex web of allegiances into just three sides: Jerusalem's leprous king Baldwin and those loyal to him; Guy de Lusignan and his allied Christian extremists; and Salah ad-Din and the united armies of Islam.

Yet Monahan clearly had no desire to simply tell their story, even on the reduced terms of a bowdlerized historical romance, despite the boy's-own adventure that constitutes its hero's journey.  (Indeed, until the last hour, it's the opposite of anything you might readily describe as "rollicking.")  Instead, Kingdom is "about" the Crusades purely to the extent that the Crusaders, their kingdoms, and their enemies could be appropriated as symbols to express how Monahan feels about this thing called "religion."

Thus Kingdom becomes a fantasia: a history redesigned from the ground up to suit Monahan's polemic of passionate modernism.  In its most fundamental departure, Kingdom takes as its focus one Balian of Ibelin—whom history tells us was born in Jaffa, was buried in Acre, and was as deeply-entrenched in the face-numbing intrigue of the Crusader states as any man ever was or ever could be.  Monahan makes this utterly typical figure of the Crusades his hero, but not without significant renovation; and to this end, Monahan has redeployed him as the bastard peasant son of a perfect fiction named Godfrey.

Sired by cryptic rape upon a blacksmith's wife somewhere in France, this Balian was raised as their own until such time as Godfrey returns—his testicles suffering from a case of the arrows, he needs to secure an heir for his Levantine fief, and Balian is, to the best of his knowledge, the only son he has, legitimate or not.  Sadly, it's not been the best year for Balian.  His wife, having borne the death of their child, has recently committed suicide; we begin with her decapitation and burial at a crossroads, her interment supervised by Balian's own venal priest of a brother, who would also much like to see Balian taken away to the Holy Land.  But Balian, possessed of a deep and abiding inertia, initially refuses.  However, when his brother makes the mistake of mocking Balian's dead spouse—and winds up being stabbed and then awesomely set aflame for his provocation—Balian decides it best to catch up with his new dad before the local authorities can catch up with him.  Unfortunately, his getaway is not quite quick enough.

Unwilling to let the village sheriff take his son, Godfrey makes up for his twenty-some years of neglect when he receives a mortal wound in the melee which ensues.  Thus, by the time Balian finally arrives in the Holy Land, washed ashore after a shipwreck, he's already become the new Baron of Ibelin—just in time to kill the most random Arab swashbuckler since Raiders of the Lost Ark.  But he spares another, making a friend within the enemy's camp before he's actually made it to his own.

What were they even doing out here—that is, other than serving a narrative purpose?

Balian finds his way to Jerusalem, and here he falls ass-backwards into courtly politics, gaining the enmity of Guy de Lusignan, arousing the affections of Guy's wife, Sibylla, and earning the trust of her brother, King Baldwin, who hides his putrefied complexion behind an inexpressive mask, but speaks in the gentle tones—and the weary manner—of a man of peace.  In the meantime, Balian builds an irrigation system and does battle with a Muslim raiding party, albeit with reluctance—Balian having taken his father's and Baldwin's injunctions toward tolerance to heart.  But Guy and his allies—especially the monstrous Templar, Raynald de Chatillon—are always maneuvering.  And when Baldwin dies, Balian cannot stop them from dragging the kingdom into holy war.

Streamlined or no, Scott and Monahan's movie is still an epic true, running well over three hours in its longer (and obligatory) director's cut.  Yet despite this time, motivation gets streamlined right into a single dimensionless point.  Guy gets the absolute worst of it, sketched into a diabolical caricature, deluded about the strength of his deity at least as much as he is about the strength of his arms.  (It seems so unnecessary, too, when Raynald already fills Kingdom's quota of raw, unchecked villainy.)  It's certainly not that Guy and Raynald's ravenous desire to kill Muslims demands nuance, only that within the confines of this movie—which goes completely out of its way to obfuscate Salah ad-Din's own intentions—Guy and Raynald's reckless provocations seem outright suicidal.

Which indeed they are.

But these aren't people, anyway.  They're the stand-ins for Monahan's big ideas.  Baldwin and Salah ad-Din are likewise remade as the custodians of a fragile Middle Eastern peace, the co-authors of a "kingdom of conscience."  And on the margins is a nameless Knight Hospitaller.  He speaks of what might please God better than a crusade, and He ought to know, since there's pretty much no mistaking the Hospitaller as anything but the direct address of the Almighty—and you can call Him Christ, or you can call Him Allah, but He's known to His closest friends as "Willie."

Finally, we have Balian, our "perfect knight"—which apparently means an openly agnostic proponent of secular humanism.  Balian transitions from the Medieval pilgrim, deeply concerned with the fate of his wife's soul, to the Enlightenment thinker in the space of just one scene.  However, in this latter mode, he offers a cogent elegy to the dire situation that faces Jerusalem: "None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended."  Of course, it is Monahan's deep desire that you not fail to realize—as if you could fail to realize—that these words must apply as much to the Israel of today as to a kingdom that vanished a millennium ago.  And thus they are the whitest words ever written by a basically well-intentioned person, but there you have it.

To deliver the moral pronouncements that constitute virtually every spoken line—calling it "dialogue" might be begging the question—Scott enlisted a genuine all-star cast.  And this does make all the difference.  Each and every one of them are capable actors, and amongst this number we must count Orlando Bloom, whether we want to or not.  All do a shockingly good job with what they have, investing their paper-thin roles with ferocious sincerity.

Okay, Liam Neeson is just playing Ra's al-Ghul again, but it seems appropriate.

Rather than offering performances, they strike attitudes, becoming avatars of whichever virtue or vice their role requires.  Only two characters emerge from Kingdom's sea of archetypes.  The first is Sibylla, gifted by dint of her motherhood with two separate and concrete motivations, and played well by a strangely not-nude Eva Green.  The second is Baldwin, whose historical basis provides Monahan with the perfect vessel, his mortified flesh bringing him nearer to godliness than anyone.  Baldwin remains very much an archetype—but one that Ed Norton so flawlessly embodies that he doesn't need depth to feel real.  Turning Baldwin's facelessness into a strength, even playing strongly against type as a basically pleasant human being, it's roles like this that remind you that Norton really is a great actor when he wants to be.  Meanwhile, everyone else may be flat; but they are always sharp.

Sword pun.

And this us especially the case for Ghassan Massoud, who, in his few, glimpsing scenes, plays his Salah ad-Din as much the same gauzy, orientalized Saladin of old chivalric legend—but so tremendously well that he becomes, every inch, the perfect representation of a towering force of history.  Performances like Massoud's, and Norton's, truly are the stuff the epic is made of.

Then there's Scott himself, off in his corner, directing the living shit out of the script, without necessarily realizing or caring that his movie often lacks emotional and narrative coherence.  He doesn't give a good God damn if he rushes through scenes and moods.  He's interested in the pure image.  Thus Scott's direction exists at a certain detachment from the needs of telling his story.

And it kind of doesn't matter, when Kingdom's visuals are so pristine. Sublime, CGI-boosted Moroccan landscapes present themselves, basically whenever Scott feels like it.  Scott invites us to gaze lovingly at the painterly procession of vast armies across the sky and the sand, their banners unfurled against the wind.  Janty Yates' costume design is a veritable orgy of various styles and functions, from the armor of the knights, to the clean lines of Salah ad-Din's cloak, to Sibylla's gorgeous Byzantine accoutrements.  Meanwhile, Arthur Max' reality-based production design, taking advantage of surviving Crusader-era castles in Spain, seamlessly blends the false with the monumentally true.  (Kingdom's effects are all fantastic in general—except for one bit, involving a flock of CG ravens, which will remind the unlucky viewer of nothing less than Birdemic.)

Let's pretend it didn't happen.

Unsurprisingly, the director of Gladiator finds his greatest joy in the gruesomeness of sword-and-armor combat; only Mel Gibson himself could claim to be Scott's better in this arena.  If Godfrey's advice to Balian about having a "high guard" feels more like a placeholder that Monahan realized could also be used as an amazingly blunt metaphor, when Kingdom finally turns to all-out warfare in its last hour, it isn't half so overdetermined.  Offering what I suspect is the single coolest depiction of medieval siegecraft ever put to film, on top of some of the best swordfighting, Kingdom is chaotic, and it is vicious—why, it's even lovingly viscous—and it fills frame after classically-composed 'Scope frame with wonderful, wonderful violence.  Truffaut was wrong when he said that you can't make an anti-war film, but if there's one thing we can always count on, it's that Ridley Scott is never going to make one.  (The only exception to Kingdom's brutal beauty is, unfortunately, a major one: the director's positively inexplicable commitment to some of the ugliest slow motion ever put to film.)

But even if he doesn't seem completely invested in them, you can't say that Scott fails to engage with Monahan's themes: the very strongest of Scott's many grace notes must be a crescent moon in the night sky, ascendant over a Christian banner, signalling the triumph of a more natural order over the one artificially-imposed—even when Monahan himself seems to lament the artifice's loss, since it is the destruction of the hope represented by his "Kingdom of Jerusalem."

Indeed, Kingdom is somewhat impossibly naive—and wallows in its naievete as if this will make it clean.  It posits that, if we could just get rid of all the bigots, we could all live together, without ever suggesting how we get rid of them.  It offers mere gestures to the gross inequities inherent to the Crusader state.  It ignores entirely any question about the privileges we inherit, describing the Kingdom as a neoliberal paradise despite every bit of evidence to the contrary.  But it's a bittersweet thing, all the same.  After all, Kingdom ends with the complete destruction of the dream.  The victory of its hero is his return to the simple life of a peasant; its happy ending is getting the hell out of Heaven.

It is a beautiful film, if rarely a very deeply-felt one; and it is a thoughtful film, even if its thoughts sometimes seem shallow.  When you find yourself looking for a movie about knights wailing on each other with swords, you could certainly do much worse than Kingdom of Heaven, and—as far as movies about white and brown people killing each other go—you could really hardly do better at all.

Score:  8/10

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