Sunday, July 28, 2013

Far from heaven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)
Kingdom of Heaven is yet another example of the weirdness of current Hollywood. The film is hugely expensive – it cost well over $100 million. It takes on a subject that surely ranks nowhere on anyone’s list of surefire popular subject matter – the 12th century war between Christians and Moslems over Jerusalem – a subject that seems to carry some particular topical resonance. It’s an immense technical achievement, with epic recreations of the period and wonderfully orchestrated battle sequences. And yet at its heart it seems to flinch from its subject. It consistently rejects complexity in favour of simplicity. It interprets its characters in blatantly modern terms. It chooses tired narrative strategies that emphasize trivialities and clichés at the cost of the wider subject. Scene by scene, it negates the ambition inherent in the choice of project.

Pulls you back in...

$100 million movies are sometimes artistically interesting, but maybe we should view those few examples as pure gravy, and otherwise rid ourselves of the temptation to view the entire category as other than commerce. Over the years I find myself writing in this space about “big” movies quite a bit less than I used to – it just doesn’t seem worthwhile. On the other hand, if you love movies at all, the mainstream is awfully hard to ignore, and as Pacino said in The Godfather Part III, just when you think you’re out, it pulls you back in.

On a recent trip to the UK I visited some relatives who have their satellite TV switched on basically all day, switching endlessly from one channel to the other. Most of the stuff is American, or looks like it’s aspiring to it. My relatives acknowledge most of the stuff is crap, but they have it on anyway. One day, one of them said that she does the crossword in The Sun (a paper that’s famously even more divorced from a meaningful concept of “news” than its Toronto equivalent) because, at home all day, she needs something to stimulate her mind. I couldn’t bring myself to point out the inadequacy of the Sun crossword for this task, or the copious range of available alternatives (starting for example with buying a better newspaper). But then, she knows already. I’ve encountered something similar numerous times among my (generally intelligent) colleagues – they know on some level that the stuff they choose to watch or absorb is trivial and unworthy, but their frames of reference are entirely defined by mainstream media, and it barely occurs to them that they might break out (the one peculiar exception to this tends to be film festival week, during which everyone suddenly becomes a connoisseur of the obscure).


If one viewed Hollywood cinema as a coherent entity, projects like Kingdom of Heaven would seem like a strategic play – the enterprising choice of subject serving to demonstrate that movies as a whole can’t be as limited and pandering as people say, but then with an execution studiously avoiding setting any real challenges. The film could potentially have been rather daring in how it presents the Moslems as being somewhat more temperate and rational than at least a faction of the Christians (during its making, there were reports that the film threatened to evoke controversy by being anti-Moslem, but maybe that was merely artful publicity). But this comes across as no more than political correctness, or else as just a matter of whim and happenstance. Of course one could debate the film’s version of events, one could research inaccuracies or odd choices of emphasis. But what, truly, would be the point?

I realize I may have comprehensively removed what small reason originally existed for anyone to read to the end of this review, but on the “in for a penny in for a pound” principle, here are a few more comments anyway. Kingdom of Heaven is directed by Ridley Scott, and it’s in a similar vein to his big hit Gladiator. At the start, a modest blacksmith played by Orlando Bloom encounters a knight (Liam Neeson) who announces himself as Bloom’s  long lost father. The blacksmith is grieving his wife’s recent suicide, and perceives an opportunity to redeem her soul by accepting his father’s invitation to follow him to the Holy Land. Neeson is killed before he gets there, but instantly on arrival, Bloom establishes himself as the most charismatic, level-headed man in town. He quickly aligns himself with the dying Christian King of Jerusalem (played, uncredited and behind a mask, by Edward Norton) and against a group of Christian rabble-rousers who blatantly seek to disrupt the workable if fragile peace with the Moslems who control most of the territory around the city. He also falls for the wife of one of the main rabble-rousers (played by Eva Green, from Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), which helps keep things interesting. The pretty good cast also includes Jeremy Irons and Brendan Gleeson.

Pros and Cons

When Bloom arrives in Jerusalem and inherits his father’s lands, he quickly sets to work on upgrading it with better water and ambiance, looking like a 60’s commune leader. Is there any historical verisimilitude at all to that? Who knows, but it’s clear that contemporary identification is the driving motivation here. The same goes for the frequently irony-laden, edge of flip dialogue (“It was not that they had no right to take you,” says Neeson after polishing off a bunch who tried to apprehend Bloom, “it was the way they asked”) and for the emphasis on personal validation and definition. All of this makes the film feel profoundly suspect. That would be fine, even admirable, if this were part of (say) a distancing or dialectic artistic strategy that sought to tell us something intriguing about our 21st century situation, but there’s nothing there beyond a bland acknowledgment in the closing titles that the battles over Jerusalem continue to this day. Even Oliver Stone’s Alexander, a huge failure though that was, seemed to be grappling more intelligently both with how to identify and dramatize the truth of its protagonist and to show why that should matter to any of us now. And although Scott handles digital technology superbly, creating more authentic looking epic sequences than just about anyone, I still much prefer the threadbare historical recreations in the work of someone like Pasolini. Scott’s authenticity is so overwhelming, you never get past the fakeness of it.

Leaving aside all historical and political references and judging the film purely as a self-contained drama (as though, like much of Scott’s earlier work, it were science fiction), it’s moderately engrossing, although lacking any distinction or sense of discovery. The relationship with Green seems to carry a potential that’s not realized, and Scott cuts so many close-ups of the actress into the battle scenes that I started to wonder if the whole thing was going to be revealed as a fantasy inside her head. Others will no doubt pick up on things that passed me by. Like a candy store, there’s enough there for everyone to come away with something, but it’s all dispensable and nutritionally suspect.


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