Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven
“It’s two hours of people looking at each other significantly,” a friend said recently about Blade Runner. I think he intended his quip to be disparaging, but I took it as a complement: it’s only the finest of filmmakers who learn to invent languages composed entirely of glances and gestures, to infuse appearances with all the expressive potential of words. And nowhere in Ridley Scott’s filmography do appearances speak louder and with more eloquence than in his dazzling, vastly underrated Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005).
As far as I can tell, Kingdom of Heaven follows a blacksmith (Orlando Bloom) who becomes a knight, struggles with his faith and refuses to let his corrupt surroundings dull his capacity for mercy and compassion. But I don’t remember much of the story. I remember a moonlit hurricane and a shipwreck. I remember our hero emerging from the wreckage miraculously unharmed, only to find himself in an otherworldly desert. I remember a blanket of buzzards swarming over a bloody battlefield. I remember the billowing of curtains, the wafting of incense, the scattering of roses, rooms lit by siegefire. I remember a leprous king bent over a dusty mirror, his face covered by an expressionless silver mask. I remember a volley of flaming arrows, launched into the night sky in slow motion and mingling with the stars.
Kingdom of Heaven is an action film in the purest sense of the word—and yet it contains remarkably little action. The climactic showdown ends in a truce, the final duel in an act of mercy. Instead, Scott turns his performers’ every gesture into the equivalent of a sword-thrust. “We are all of us what we do,” declares Bloom’s character late in the film, and Scott takes the maxim to heart: his characters exist only insofar as they act and are seen acting. Our hero only knows that his love interest has given up her designs on queenhood once he sees her walking among her fellow exiles. “A queen never walks,” he says, clasping her hand.
In a sense, Kingdom of Heaven represents cinema in its purest form: a world that exists only as image, as appearance. A world where actions and gestures speak—but only of themselves. Here, even something as plainly psychological as a man’s crisis of faith can only resolve itself by way of action: “if God did not love you,” Bloom is told, “how could you have done the things which you have done?” Hope, jealousy, desire, dread: all are located in the stuff of the physical, visible world, in the movement of bodies through space—be they curtains, little makeshift boats, or a leper-king’s bandaged hands.
Russell Crowe in A Good Year
The knights of Kingdom of Heaven have learned how to move weighed down by war helmets and broadswords. Their most graceful movements occur on the battlefield, immortalized in elegant, balletic slow-mo. Elsewhere you could imagine them moving a bit uncertainly, even clumsily—unused to their newfound freedom. A Good Year (2006), Scott’s next film, moves in much the same way. Its camera, like that of Kingdom of Heaven, lingers over a parade of glimmering surfaces. Characters define themselves by their appearances and deeds alone. When they speak, they do so less to reveal new facets of their inner lives than to externalize (and effectively neutralize) any lingering shreds of interiority they might still have left. A Good Year is, for all intents and purposes, an action film—one that happens to be trapped in the body of a romantic comedy. The result is Scott’s strangest and most personal picture to date—a rare chance to see the action film outside of its native habitat.
If A Good Year is a romantic comedy, it certainly doesn’t look the part. After all, how many romantic comedies open with bombastic 360-degree pans? How many romantic comedies repeatedly treat their viewers to spontaneous shaky-cam POV shots? A tennis match midway through the film—undoubtedly the most frenetic, violently edited tennis match I’ve ever seen onscreen—could have been torn straight from the shot list of one of Gladiator’s bloodiest duels.
With A Good Year, Scott presented himself with a baffling puzzle. He had to tell the story of a man’s inner awakening from the perspective of a genre obsessed with the superficial and the visible, a genre often ill-equipped to handle inner experience. On paper, the film is a standard fish-out-of-water tale: a hotshot London lawyer (Russell Crowe) lands in French wine country to sell his late uncle’s estate. Over a few culture-shocked and epiphany-filled days, he falls for a French waitress (Marion Cotillard, impossibly radiant) and slowly re-evaluates his ruthless former life. It’s the story of a man who ceases to define himself by action and decides instead to cultivate a passive appreciation for the pleasures of the moment. It’s the story of a man acquiring an inner life.
And yet even to tell this story in which action has no place, Scott clings to the conventions of the action epic. Cotillard is, in Crowe’s words, “a vision,” reduced by Scott’s camera to a romantic ideal. The aforementioned dialogue functions only to confirm what we’ve already learned about the speakers by how they look and act. Even memory Scott attempts to locate in the stuff of the visible world—Crowe’s glimpses of his long-lost childhood come to him as he photographs his uncle’s crumbling estate. The scene feels almost defensive: if the act of creating impersonal and objective records of the external world can itself spark interior epiphanies, then perhaps the action film can do justice to its protagonist’s inner life without sacrificing its attachment to surfaces and its aversion to psychology.
This action film, however, stops short of that goal. There’s something bittersweet about A Good Year’s final shot: the camera slowly tracks away from Crowe as soon as he’s hung up on his last business call and renounced his former life of action. The former action hero now defines himself according to his capacity for empathy and his sensitivity to the pleasures of the moment, virtues to which Scott’s camera still has no access. Even in that final shot Cotillard remains for Scott—and us—a radiant, inaccessible ideal. Our insight into Crowe’s state of mind and our appreciation of the world he inhabits depends once more on appearances, on the way he smiles, the ease with which he walks, the way the sunlight glances off the vines. And so the camera backs away hesitantly, resistant to part from a life it will never be able to depict. The action hero has finally learned to move without his armor, as, sighing, the action film puts on its clunky suit once more.
Kingdom of Heaven screens Sunday, June 3 at 4:00pm. A Good Year screens Saturday, June 2 at 1:00pm. See them together, or any two films in our complete Ridley Scott retrospective, and save with our double feature package!
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