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Kingdom of Heaven

At the end of Kingdom of Heaven, a caption updates us as to the status of Jerusalem in the 21st Century. It may be the understatement of the year in its characterization of the region as still "unresolved." If anyone in the audience is surprised by that bit of information, then they probably wandered into the wrong movie.

The real surprises in director Ridley Scott's latest historical epic are two-fold: that ever there was a time during the Crusades when a Christian King of Jerusalem tried to maintain peace between Muslims and Christians, and that in this time of distrust, the agnostic filmmaker has created a film with a solid spiritual message - a peaceful one at that.

To get to that point, however, Kingdom of Heaven still jumps through a lot of hoops that make it appear by-the-numbers at first.

In a standard Hollywood epic, true evil can not appear to be mundane. If it appears in a low status character, that one must be craven, tending to wild eyes and generally snivelly behavior. Such it is with the village priest (Michael Sheen) that robs the corpse of a suicide that he has been charged with burying. High status evil, of course, must mince and prance, as the French Crusader Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas) does with relish. He even slowly undulates his hips as if climaxing before slitting the throat of a Muslim messenger.

Despite the prevalence of evil Christians, Scott and screenwriter William Monahan balance their picture out with noble men that truly get what religion is supposed to be about - on both sides. The protagonist Balian (Orlando Bloom) seeks forgiveness, as does his deadbeat dad Godfrey (Liam Neeson). Though their relationship rushes and bows to the needs of the story, clearly both men understand the message.

"Protect the kingdom," Godfrey urges his son, "and failing that, protect the people." With those words, Balian finds his purpose. Though he becomes a more than competent knight much too suddenly (and yet, isn't it a blessing to be spared a montage?), his drive and honest heroism moves the film surprisingly well. Yes, Orlando has finally played a MAN in a movie. Don't worry, girls, he still has those moist doe eyes.

Said eyes move Guy's wife Sibylla (Eva Green) to adultery, a momentary lapse in Balian's character for he seeks forgiveness for his wife's suicide. It becomes complicated knowing that Sibylla is also the sister of the King of Jerusalem, the leper Baldwin.

And no, that's not a lost Baldwin brother. The role is actually played by one of America's top actors, but it would ruin the surprise to reveal who lurks beneath the silver mask. Suffice to say the performance works incredibly well.

Aside from the villains, including a ridiculously over the top Brendan Gleeson, all the acting works well. Jeremy Irons, unfortunately saddled with a leonine scar, delivers an understated and powerful performance as Tiberias, a Crusader struggling internally with the Templars' intolerance.

The biggest revelation, thought it may do him little good, comes from Alexander Siddig as the Muslim noble Nasir. Yes, Dr. Bashir from Deep Space Nine bulked up and owns the movie every time he walks on screen. Sorry, Orlando.

Of course, no epic would be complete without battle scenes and sieges. As a director, Scott is a master of such scenes, and delivers some of the most watchable battles in a few years that have brought us a lot of man to man clashes. Still, we have seen many recently, (featuring Orlando Bloom, in fact), so it gets hard not to grow impatient for the magical elephant things to appear and start tossing soldiers around.

The power of the message overcomes all its shortcomings. When the summer movie season officially begins, it's always reassuring when a thoughtful film sneaks in disguised as a blockbuster.


Derek McCaw

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