'Off the Map': It's Worth the Trip

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 25, 2005


As I sat down to watch a screening of "Off the Map" at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, its director, Campbell Scott, paced the aisles nervously. The theater was full, and I was glad to be safely ensconced in the crowd, ready to slip away if the movie was no good. After all, two out of three of these festival screenings are less than what you hope for.

But like William Gibbs, a character in the movie who becomes so infatuated with New Mexico, where the story's set, that he swears never to leave, I found myself permanently enchanted, too.

There was much more to the film than breathtaking desert sunsets. I realized this early on in the movie, and spent the rest of it praying that the charm wouldn't wane.

It didn't. This character drama, which resounds with magic realism and wit, is about four richly delineated characters -- existentially confused IRS agent Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), spiritual seeker Arlene (Joan Allen), her depressed husband Charley (Sam Elliott), and their precocious 12-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis) -- who search for their own definitions of solace. The pace is practically painterly, taking its time with its brushstrokes so that the characters emerge with a sort of unhurried artistry.

I need not have worried.


The "Kingdom of Heaven" was at hand.

Ridley Scott, director of such inspired epics as "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "Gladiator," had been talking for years about his pet project: a film about the Crusades that would give penetrating, historical perspective to a world roiling in the aftermath of Sept. 11. So here it was, the battle of wills between Balian of Ibelin, a 12th-century French crusader charged with protecting Jerusalem, and Saladin, the Muslim leader whose multitudinous army stands in force outside the holy city.

I knew, going in, that Orlando Bloom was playing Balian. I should have taken that as a dark warning. Epics have become digitalized, live-action cartoons, featuring heroes that are good-looking versions of the dudes and dudettes watching in the audience. "Kingdom" proved to be no exception. Even though Scott and screenwriter William Monahan created a thoughtful antiwar scenario about the religious divisions that pit one great people against another, Bloom had all the heft of a hologram.

His performance was tentative, his bearing slight, and he seemed almost embarrassingly anachronistic -- a backlighted boy toy who had somehow stumbled into the job of prince-defender. As Balian withstood Saladin (Ghassan Massoud, a Syrian actor and the best thing about the film) and his fiery projectiles, siege towers and the usual computer-generated swarm of soldiers, it felt as though Bloom was reprising his previous role in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Instead of watching the greatest film of Scott's already impressive career, I was sitting through another "Rings" sequel, this one called "Legolas Defends Jerusalem."

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