- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

Director Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is one movie star short of reaching the epic status it so obviously craves.

The movie, a dramatic retelling of a crucial moment in the Crusades, hangs its hopes on teen idol Orlando Bloom. The co-star of “Lord of the Rings” performs ably, so much so he sometimes makes us forget the role demands a bigger presence. But brood as his Balian might, it’s clear the thinly sketched warrior needed a young Crowe or Gibson to give him some dramatic heft.

It hurts Mr. Bloom’s cause that his hero seems too often like a bystander to history, not someone shaping it through his own grit and wiles

Mr. Scott, who basked in Oscar glory with “Gladiator,” is the right man to oversee stirring battle sequences set in centuries gone by. We get a few doozies here, notably a final-reel clash that’s a textbook case of using computer-generated effects for all the right reasons.

“Heaven” opens with a young blacksmith named Balian (Mr. Bloom) mourning the death of his wife and child, the former from suicidal grief over their toddler’s passing.

Along gallops Lord Godfrey (Liam Neeson, adroitly cast as yet another wizened instructor type), who claims to be Balian’s father. The blacksmith doesn’t buy that line, but when he impulsively kills a priest for besmirching his late wife’s name, he seeks out Godfrey and his men for protection.

Their union ends badly, with Godfrey mortally wounded and down a few good men. Godfrey hangs on long enough to tutor Balian in some key life lessons — in the process showing the young actor what it means to command the screen.

Then it’s off to Jerusalem, where Balian hopes he can be forgiven both his and his late wife’s sins. Now fatherless, Balian has grown in stature. He’s a lord now, too, and his father’s mentoring is paying dividends for him as he seeks to prop up a rickety peace between Christian and Muslim forces.

The eventual clash is depicted convincingly by Mr. Scott and a team of special-effects wizards. Battle has rarely looked so bestial and beautiful. The fighting slows, then nearly stops altogether while we soak in the carnage, rendered in realistic hues and cries. All the while, the music moans in near perfect alignment, an amalgam of traditional film music and Middle Eastern flourishes.

Less nuanced is the filmmakers’ cringe-worthy political correctness. The Muslim warriors are uniformly honorable and strong, while the Christians embody a more credible range of human behavior — from relative benevolence to unbridled aggression.

When a dutiful Jeremy Irons tells Balian that instead of fighting for God, the Christians are fighting for wealth and power, you can practically hear liberal-minded cast and crew applauding themselves just off set.

Mr. Irons is one of several stellar players who round out the cast. Especially magnetic is Brendan Gleeson’s Reynald, a war-hungry cur who offers precisely the right measure of outlandishness needed to relieve “Heaven’s” somber tone.

“Kingdom of Heaven” feels padded through its middle ages, as if Mr. Scott and company felt compelled to make their saga epic in length as well as scope.

It’s epic, all right — it’s just not anchored by an actor with the gravitas to play epic heroism.

***

WHAT: “Kingdom of Heaven”

RATING: R (Battle sequences, bloodshed, disturbing imagery and a brief sexual situation)

CREDITS: Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by William Monahan

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes

WEB SITE: www.kingdomofheavenmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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