The contemporary relevance of a story in which feuding armies wage holy war for ownership of Jerusalem is boldly stated in an on-screen epitaph to Kingdom of Heaven. It reminds us (in case we had forgotten) that this is a battle which rages to this day. Yet it is not sharp political insight but blunt dramatic convolution that characterises Ridley Scott's peculiarly PC epic, as it struggles to impose a 21st-century sensibility on to its crusading 12th-century action.
Comprising two and a half hours of ambitious (and often eye-watering) rambles through internal ructions in the Middle East between the Second and Third Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven serves up vast battles, passionate love stories, deathbed denouements and philosophical bons mots aplenty. But the final result still manages occasionally to resemble a dreary Sunday-school sermon, with its blend of aspirational highs and tedious, languorous lows. Despite echoes (both visual and thematic) of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, Scott's long-gestated pet project ultimately lacks an engaging personal touch, whipping up a desert storm of "issues", ancient and modern, in which the audience all too often gets lost.
Aimed squarely at an upmarket multiplex market, Kingdom of Heaven begins with an archetypal everyman figure being propelled from domesticity to drama as historical destiny unfolds around him. Pretty-boy Orlando Bloom plays the lowly blacksmith Balian, who discovers that he is the illegitimate son of a noble Crusader (a sadly short-lived Liam Neeson) and joins the march to Jerusalem to atone for a slew of sins, ranging from his own killing of a priest to his wife's suicide. "He is in hell," says the actor of Balian's character in these early scenes, although the inner torment of Bloom, a Lord of the Rings alumnus, never seems to rise above the irritation of one whose cappuccino has been served with too little milky froth - this despite the addition of rough-tough facial stubble and a sprinkling of designer filth.
Sorely unable to shoulder the historical weight of this unwieldy drama, Bloom leaves a gaping absence at the centre of Scott's kingdom - a fatal flaw for a film that desperately needs an identifiable hero to personify its self-consciously liberal themes of faith, heroism and (ironically) tolerance. Elsewhere, a stalwart supporting cast efficiently embodies the broadest strokes of William Monahan's revisionist script. Ghassan Massoud's Saladin is a far more convincing Arab counterpart to Bloom's namby-pamby blandness, and Brendan Gleeson's flame-haired Reynald offers a ripe cartoon caricature of bloodthirsty crusading avarice, apparently designed to emphasise a muddle-headed distinction between "good" and "bad" Christian imperialism.
As for Scott, what is surprising is how uncertain his footing seems to be upon land that he should be able to claim as his own. While he has occasionally struggled to find projects that could support both his world-building visual style and his character-driven narrative sensibilities (he is a far better storyteller than many critics give him credit for), Kingdom of Heaven seems on paper to provide a divine opportunity for his creative powers. Within its drama, we pick up the threads of several thematic obsessions that have haunted Scott's work for years: from the nature of the human soul, poetically pondered in the sci-fi epic Blade Runner; through the coming-of-age rituals of the underrated White Squall and the spirit of discovery celebrated in 1492: conquest of paradise; to the unlikely collision between worldly conflict and spiritual transcendence, explored in Gladiator, which bookended its blood-curdling battle scenes with extraordinary visions of the Elysian fields.
Yet despite the director's promising pedigree, Kingdom of Heaven consistently falters as it ties itself in earnest knots attempting to reconcile monotheism with multiculturalism. Perversely, while Scott's militaristic Black Hawk Down was (wrongly) accused of racism by right-on critics, its head-bashing nihilism offered a more honest in-sight into the anonymous savagery of war than all the beatific pontificating about interfaith "truth" that plagues these caring-sharing Crusades.
There are sparkling gems of cinematic creativity buried in this sprawling movie, not only in the jaw-dropping battle scenes, but also in haunting images such as the ornately masked face of the leprous King Baldwin, which becomes a silvery emblem of the bridge between body and soul.
Such eerie delights are characteristic of Scott, whose films have often blurred the line between the factual and the fan-tastical, the incarnate and the intangible. Yet Kingdom of Heaven remains at best a noble failure - admirable, perhaps, in its earnest endeavour to take a fresh and spiritually uplifting look at the past, but finally foolhardy in its thwarted attempts to spin romanticised gold from such inevitably tarnished material.