In a thread at the Films In Release section of the forums, The Rain Dog brought up the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven, one of my very favorite films.
Most people agree that the DC is the definitive contemporary historical epic, in the tradition of Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. Some believe it’s Ridley Scott’s best film, or at least high on that list. In my opinion, it is one of a select few films I’d describe as being perfect movies in much the way characters in Kingdom of Heaven describe Balian as a “perfect knight” though with none of the cynicism and dismissal of a man like Tiberius.
In the thread, you might notice (or I will simply tell you!) that people who are on all different points of the spectrum of liking or disliking the movie agree that Orlando Bloom’s casting is some kind of misfire and certainly a problem (even if minor) with such an otherwise good film.
I am here to tell you that I emphatically disagree with this position.
First of all, why is Orlando Bloom an issue? I believe that there are four primary reasons why people have a problem with this. All with varying degrees of legitimacy.
1. Preconceived notions of Orlando Bloom as a serious actor.
2. General opinion of Orlando Bloom’s acting ability.
3. Wistful feelings about Paul Bettany.
4. Irrational dislike of Orlando Bloom.
It should be obvious that reason 4 is the most illegitimate. Most people, and I include all participants in the thread on principle, would be able to surpass this sort of thing and not use it as grounds to criticize the man’s inclusion in the film, or the film itself as a result. Reason 3 is also illegitimate as it falls into the category of criticizing a movie for what it could have been/what I wanted it to be as opposed to what is actually offered. A film should be judged on its own merits, not on alternative possibilities where this or that detail was different. Surely we can all agree about this much. Reason 1 is also problematic for people who have it, though they would probably not admit it. Basically, it is based on the fact that Legolas made Bloom a teen sensation and he has not made much of an impact as an actor, capable only of one-note or limited performances in fantasy/period films (Pirates of the Caribbean, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven, obviously).
The fact that the studio pressured Scott to cast him further mythologizes his lack of capability, the fact that he somehow doesn’t deserve the role of Balian. This is silly since people get cast in movies for all kinds of reasons, good and bad, and it is the performance that must be judged. Likewise, an actor’s public persona has little to do with their talent. Admittedly, Bloom has not made the effort of people with similar career issues (Colin Farrel and Leonardo DiCaprio are two examples, though they are older I think) to work with great directors on interesting, if not successful, projects.
The trickiest reason, and the most oft-quoted is reason 2. Again, that Orlando Bloom is not a good actor in general. He’s a pretty boy thrown into big projects to draw box office. And to be honest, he’s not been involved in many roles that could be considered challenging. In The Lord of the Rings, he is underwritten and basically stands around looking pretty and ethereal when he’s not doing cool shit which is cynically inserted to be “cool shit”. In Troy, he plays a whiney and self-centered brat who is unlikeable and never redeems himself for the audience, but this is a fault of the script though it’s possible Bloom could have done more with the role. In Pirates, he was always the straight-man to Johnny Depp’s rambunctious Jack Sparrow. But the role of Will Turner is not particularly demanding, all he needs to do is look pretty and pull of the dialogue both of which he does handily. In Ned Kelly, he’s written as very one-note but plays a more likable version of Paris. In Blackhawk Down, he is barely a character but I do think he achieved a bulldog-about-to-be-unleashed intensity that is so common in young, untested American soldiers (at least in movies). Then there’s always Elizabethtown, but the less said about that piece of shit the better.
These are the roles upon which Orlando Bloom is judged. Few have seen his understated young avenger-in-love via Haven which was the first time I gave him credit as an actor. Then I saw Kingdom of Heaven and everything else I thought about him took a quick turn. I once agreed with anyone who thought he hadn’t really earned his fame, that he wasn’t a movie star because he was a good performer or charismatic screen presence. But then he got Balian, earned or not, and now I finally get to ditch the set-up and talk about why I think his performance is on par with any in the film.
First of all, who is this Balian character anyway?
Balian is a tragic character in that he is saddled with an immense burden of guilt, sorrow, and loss. He is a serious guy. He doesn’t laugh or smile, and it takes a while before he really seems to enjoy anything. I mean, his kid dies and his wife commits suicide and his own brother has her decapitated. He responds to these sins by sinning, he murders his brother and sets off a chain of events that end with his father’s death. By the time he gets to Jerusalem, Balian is very earnestly searching for the redemption of his soul.
The key thing to remember about Balian is that he’s introspective. Many scenes occur with some character discussing this or that, proposing plans or offering philosophical counsel. Balian kind of absorbs all of this, and only starts to counter toward the third act of the film. Before this point, he is a man of action and responds to most issues with few words.
But ultimately, Balian’s story is about personal redemption. He sees first hand that religion can’t save him. Instead of becoming cynical or craven, he adopts values which offer him a kind of self-redemption. In doing so, he transforms from an angst and guilt-ridden lost soul and runaway to a leader of men with integrity, honor, compassion, and conviction.
Bloom pulls these characteristics off. His Balian is quiet, introspective, and pensive. Many scenes linger on his gaze, on his understated reactions to what other people are doing or saying. Throughout this, Bloom has a stiff-upper lip and pride of a sort with which he negotiates the ambiguities of the situations he is exposed to. Physically, these traits are very well translated and Balian comes across as a laconic, taciturn man who has suffered a lot but is seeking a measure of peace in the midst of fundamental (ist!) conflict.
Someone in the thread claimed that every other character is more interesting than Balian, and blames Bloom. This is deliberate and not a result of Bloom’s restraint. Balian is always being exposed to philosophies and viewpoints of other characters, be they sermons, advice, or the dying words of a father. He is a well into which others direct their hopes, ambitions, schemes, etc. This is why the device of having Balian repeat key lines is so important. It represents the activity of Balian’s choosing which values are meaningful to him, from all of the shit he experiences. This is also useful for the audience who are sort of learning about this world and these people through Balian, who is somewhat like the wordless protagonist of various RPG’s for at least the first two acts of the film.
Another Chewer asked why people find him so charismatic and heroic, why does Sybylla fall in love with him and so on. The key to these issues is, again, very subtle in terms of Bloom’s performance and the character of Balian.
By virtue of being Godfrey’s son, he already has some recognition. But it is through his deeds at Karnak that he gains a further reputation and the attention of key people such as Sybylla and Saladin. Bloom plays Balian with a quiet integrity which is readily visible when confronted by the pretensions, showmanship, and cynicism of other characters. Tiberius is cynical, Reynald insane and a zealot, and Guy is a pretentious showman with serious greed and power-acquisition issues. All of these people are more dramatic personalities, against which Balian is this unassuming man of action whose fundamental choice of honor, chivalry, and personal integrity is in direct contrast to the choices made by other characters.
But Balian isn’t written as a speechifying swashbuckler and Bloom doesn’t play him this way. Balian is world-weary but self-possessed and determined. Bloom’s performance, in particular via small moments like his quiet confessions to Godfrey, his physically-communicated sad resignation at having to fight for his horse, his rejection of the Patriarch’s religious cynicism (“Convert now, repent later!”), etc. He doesn’t speak much in the film, but when he does it is with palpable conviction especially in the third act where he really starts to solidify his place in “all this”.
Having said that, he does deliver a stirring (and my favorite) speech to perk up the defenders of Jerusalem. Bloom’s delivery of this speech elevates what is essentially a Braveheart-esque FREEDOM! bit to something else.
My favorite lines in this speech, and potentially in the entire film:
“Who has claim? …None have claim…ALL have claim!”
Some might read this and see it more as an analysis of the Balian character than a defense of Bloom’s acting ability. This is a misunderstanding of what is an implied, but central point: I think Bloom so embodies Balian that to talk about who Balian is means to talk about Bloom’s portrayal. There is so little of the posturing of other performances (necessary to the characters involved, I think) that people simply misread his performance as “lacking” or “wooden” when it is simply quiet, confident, and even poetic.
I would go so far as to call it a revelation, as is so often claimed for other actors by we commentators. Kingdom of Heaven forever changed how I looked at Orlando Bloom and I believe he deserves recognition even from people who normally associate him with his image, his prior roles, etc. Give the Director’s Cut another watch, pay attention to the physicality of the performance and the lingering shots of Bloom’s face.
Tell me I’m wrong.