Jerusalem, The late 12th century. The Christians occupy the city as the capital of their young crusader state; the Islamic Saracens want it back. As the teetering truce between them finally falters and war begins, a young knight named Balian (Bloom), striving to hold onto to his principals, steps into the breach. He finds it is a struggle that will test everything he stands for.
You can trust the impeccable Sir Ridley Scott to arrive at the movies well dressed. A director who soaks up scenes draped in layer upon layer of lavish period detail, you imagine hordes of tireless assistants nagging Oxbridge professors to glean what heraldic badge or Eastern variety of eyeliner was all the rage in 1186. Just as he did so thoroughly with 1492 and Gladiator, and even his industrious future-gazing in Alien and Blade Runner, Scott makes sure Kingdom Of Heaven revels in a near microscope level of scenic finery. No doubt, Bloom's beard length can assuredly be accounted for in 12th-century grooming guides.
What's missing from this epic, so professionally clad, is meaning. Scott shows things but fails to interpret why they are happening. Motivations, historical context, any resonance with the modern world's tribulations are avoided in a strangely bare-boned edit that feels far too short. Two hours plus is plenty for many genres but the historical epic needs to be unbound, to fill lonely Sunday afternoons with its plethora of characters and moral debates. Kingdom Of Heaven is in such a big hurry, within half an hour we've had murdered priests, burning villages, skirmishes, fever, death, a shipwreck and one of those notable scenes where an enemy prince is spared to return the favour at a later date (El Cid, anyone?).
What we don't get is an idea of what's driving Balian. The film contradicts his every move; he seems both a traditionalist and a moderniser, this innocent blacksmith who has stumbled into the big picture of history. With nary a training montage and barely a slurp of backstory, he's transformed from a fledgling knight into a brilliant military tactician, not to mention the first man to devise digging a well in a desert country that had been populated for more than two thousand years. The film may look real - impressively so - but it never feels it.
Hence it fails to stir the blood. Every speech has only the gradient of grand importance, only bland echoes of virtuous lore. Even the carnality of medieval war comes across as neutered spectacle. It's a re-imagining of crusader battlecraft aided and abetted, in this post-Rings era, by the multitudinous armies that can be dreamt up on a desktop computer and spilled out over a shimmering desert horizon. Scott's restless camera adores creeping over sand dunes to take in the sprawl of 20,000 sweaty warriors like recently disturbed termites. Size, though, isn't everything. Such magic has worn thin with overuse.
The viper-like cutting between teeming siege towers doused in burning oil and the visceral clang of close-quarter fighting has a bludgeoning power, but the brutality comes soft-packed and, bar a few ostentatious splashes, relatively bloodless. Where is Gladiator's thunder, Black Hawk Down's chaos?
Bloom is determinedly okay, with steely eyes and a laconic mood that doesn't test the mettle of his diction too hard, and he's alongside the kind of reliable pros who can strike an appropriate chord: Neeson, Irons, Thewlis, and an uncredited Ed Norton, superb as Baldwin, the Leper King hidden behind a silver mask. The romance, with Eva Green's Princess Sybilla, looks promising, but is cut short by further lurches of nonsensical plotting. And given the benign treatment of the Islamic foe - Gassan Massoud's Saladin is a wise, likeable sort of conqueror - it's left to the snarly Marton Csokas and bloodthirsty Templar Brendan Gleeson, to take on the task of being plain bad. With such pantomime morality, the film ultimately has nothing to say, keeping its pleasures assiduously superficial.
It's so gorgeous you'll forgive it a lot, but this is a frustratingly thin epic. You're left wanting more exposition, more character development, the tidying up of loose ends. Is there a much better, longer film that's been denied us?