“ Genre: War & Western - War / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Jonathan English / Actors: James Purefoy, Paul Giamatti, Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Jason Flemyng ... / DVD released 2011-07-11 at Warner Home Video / Features of the DVD: PAL „
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In the wake of the Magna Carta, King John was defied by a number of Bishops who believed his rule of slaughter not the one to follow, wishing instead for the return of their true King, Richard the Lionheart, he of the Crusades. Rochester Castle is considered a central stronghold - whoever holds it holds the key to the lands of Britain (not sure about that, kind of hard to imagine really). A motley crew of warriors form together and march to Rochester, where a friendly welcome greets them. That is...until King John marches on the castle a few days later to take it...
This was billed as a sort of medieval Magnificent Seven, but there's no real Yul Brynner and co here. Instead, we get an offering of mixed British TV stars and the usually flamboyant Paul Giamatti, turning the table on the US and casting one of theirs as the main villain in an ironic twist to the usual British nefarious criminal. Giamatti seems as if he'd rather be elsewhere for the majority of the film, and it shows. He's pretty much on his own as a villain, save for the Viking warlord he's using as his right hand man and muscle, an effective actor until required to interact with anything other than a sword and then it's disappointing.
Our heroes aren't much better, if I'm honest. James Purefoy plays a forgotten Templar Knight, complete with chainmail, tabard and longsword that quivers as if it's made of plastic sheeting as opposed to the heavy metal of days of yore. Brian Cox leads the group even though Purefoy plays the heartthrob hero; Eastenders' Jamie Foreman, high and low actor Jason Flemyng is the gritty close knife fighter, while The Office's Gareth, devoid of cheeky grin and gormless jobsworth characteristics, plays the archer of the group. Charles Dance also has a smaller role, as is his occasional wont (a bit like Neighbours' Jim Robinson (Alan Dale) - he's in everything so it seems!) but doesn't affect things much.
It doesn't appear as if much has gone into this film, to be honest, and there were some moments when timings was pretty off and things seemed rather forced. The atmosphere is what was missing for the most part. Films set in this sort of era often need some sort of background noises to provide the necessary atmosphere and make you concentrate solely on the events portrayed in the film. Ironclad could have done with a bit more throughout - it felt a bit empty, which was a shame. That having been said, the action was anything but tame. Some of the fight scenes were effectively screened, the fight choreography winning out for the most part, even if a few men defending a relatively average seeming stronghold against an entire army was stretched to the limits of believability. It works in the Wild West with guns, but there's on lone archer on the heroes' side here, faced with catapults and archers galore from the villains. You just have to suspend belief, which I don't like doing to this extent.
Kind of enjoyable but largely lacklustre, Purefoy smoulders throughout the film and I wanted him to give a bit more. It wasn't forthcoming and as a result this is no Magnificent Seven, more like Enid Blyton's secret Seven. Passes the time, but this is pretty much it.
A medieval action film set after the signing of the Magna Carta, "Ironclad" covers the story of King John (Paul Giamatti) of England's backlash against the barons who opposed him. The ink is barely dry before the vengeful King recruits an army of Danish mercenaries to re-take his kingdom and punish those who have opposed him. This led to an all-out war and the film focuses on the siege of Rochester Castle. William d'Aubigny (Brian Cox), one of the 25 guarantors of the Magna Carta, leads his group away from the vengeful king, along with a wronged Knight Templar (James Purefoy), and to the apparent sanctuary of Rochester...
"Have you ever killed a man, squire? It is not a noble thing. Not even when it is for God!"
Since the advent of TV series like "Rome", historical action drama has taken a decidedly more adult turn and reaped the financial benefits. At the higher end we have the lavish, superbly casted, beautifully produced and cleverly-plotted "A Game of Thrones" - its sex and violence never taking anything away from its clever plot twists, intriguing character development and very quotable dialogue - and then we have bottom-feeding dross like "Spartacus", where every scene is a vehicle to take us to the next piece of pornography. The Brits don't seem to have fared that well. "Camelot" was a classic failure of low budget and groping for the lowest level of entertainment. However, if "Ironclad" is anything to go by, it would appear that old Blighty might still have something worth saying about adult historical action films.
Of course, when I say "historical" I mean that as a rather loose term. "Ironclad" may have the look and feel of harsh medieval England and there certainly was a siege at Rochester Castle involving William d'Aubigny, where starvation was a major factor, but that is where the history pretty much stops with this picture. Instead director Jonathan English decides to ramp up the brutality and lead us into a dark battle between a deeply vengeful King, asserting his "God-given" right to rule, and the defenders of liberty and honour.
It's a fairly black and white affair in terms of character development. James Pureloy is adequate as the Knight Templar at the end of his term, falling in love and wanting revenge on the spiteful king. As the indomitable and courageous warrior he clearly takes the heroic centre stage, but doesn't fare well against the supporting cast. If this was intended to be his star vehicle it was ill-advised. Brian Cox is as impressive as he ever was playing the brave and resolute d'Aubigny who proves he will stand anything to the bitter end for his beliefs and those in his charge - playing martyr to his cause and his people better than Mel Gibson ever could. Derek Jacobi weighs in as Reginald de Cornhill, who was constable of Rochester Castle. Perhaps unnoticed by the more casual of viewer's Jacobi's Cornhill could easily be mistaken for a coward and humourless man of power with a trapped much younger wife. However, I was impressed by the way Jacobi revealed him to be a realist and a man of no lesser sense of responsibility than d'Aubigny. Another notable is McKenzie Crook who is doing a fine job working in straight roles. Here he plays an archer on the side of the barons. Finally, Paul Giamatti gives us a ruthless, spiteful, vicious, driven and unreasonable King John that would have been more than a match for most Robin Hoods. Here and there we get glimpses of his reasoning for his ruthlessness and religious excuse we see associated with Richard I, Henry V and Charles I. Sadly, none of the female cast members stand out and it is little surprising, this is clearly a lad's film dressed up in historically accurate settings and costumes.
However, this isn't to say it isn't enjoyable. The real star of the piece is the film's director, Jonathan English. Among English's CV is the horror film "Minotaur" and this is somewhat key. Viewers have remarked on the film's realism, which is never more evident than in the film's battle scenes. However, I would go one step further. For a 15 certificate, even by today's standards, the violence is incredibly brutal and often cruel. I appreciate the floodgates have been opened since the rise of shows like "Rome", but the film's tagline says it all: "Blood will run!" Viewers get an eye-full of blades slicing through limbs, necks, heads and so on, often with the camera leering at the anguish and pain. This is an action film that uses the violence of a horror picture and I have to admit it is very effective. It has its moments of heroism and contains excellent fight choreography, but there is clearly an interest to showing the viewer the realities of fighting a battle.
"Ironclad" rises above most action films in many ways. It is beautifully shot, well-acted, has authentic historical settings and enough twists to keep the momentum of a siege story going. Don't expect a character driven piece, even though it has a strong cast, but a fairly unpredictable action picture that pulls no punches when it comes to showing how fights are won and lost.
(FILM ONLY REVIEW)
I'm a real sucker for historical adventures, especially if they're set in the medieval period and recently I've found myself watching and reviewing quite a few in this genre ('Season of The Witch', 'Black Death', 'Robin Hood') so when Ironclad came my way I couldn't resist!
The place is 'Merry Olde England' except there isn't much to be merry about. The excesses of the unpopular King John have led to a mass revolt led by influential Barons. After much fighting the King is forced to sign 'Magna Carta' a sort of proto bill of right for the common man...well this might be an exaggeration but it did enshrine in law the principle that the King is not all powerful. Needless to say 'bad' King John wasn't best pleased and within only a few months of signing the document he starts attacking the lands and castles owned by the rebellious barons with a view to wiping out any resistance to his rule. Hiring an army of Danish mercenaries his plan is to capture the strategic Castle at Rochester from where he will control the roads to London and the rest of England. In his way stands Baron William de Albany, A Knight Templar named Thomas Marshall and rag tag bunch of warriors and hired swords. This unlikely group take over the castle against the wishes of its lord Reginald de Cornhill and his young wife Isabel. Soon King John and his army arrive and Albany and his group have to defend the castle until French reinforcements sent by archbishop Langdon arrive. Failure to do so will hand the country back to the King and will mean certain death for all those in the castle. Thus begins a long and tense siege the results of which could alter the future history of the kingdom.
The first thing to say about 'Ironclad' is that it isn't a big budget Hollywood epic it is actually a British produced film made on a relatively low budget of £20 million and to be fair it looks good for it. The medieval world is portrays is suitably mud splattered grimy and bleak. The locations used are convincing and as I assume a lot of CGI was used to create some of the most spectacular landscapes and buildings it was money and technology well spent. For such a mediocre budget the films also boasts as very good cast list certainly A- list in terms of British character acting if not in Hollywood blockbuster terms. Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook all get in to the spirit of things swash their buckles with the best of them. The lead roles are played by the always watchable James Purefoy and the excellent and versatile Paul Giamatti as the sadistic and quite frankly bonkers King John.
The story is loosely based on historical fact. King John did sign the Magna Carta and then reneged on the deal, there was a revolt and a civil war did ensue there even was a siege a Rochester castle and although extremely bloody it didn't actually take place the way it was shown in the film. 'Ironclad' owes more to 'The Seven Samurai' or the later remake 'The Magnificent Seven' than to historical textbooks there were more defenders but (magnificent) seven is always a favourite number for filmmakers and no matter it's not meant to be a documentary. In fact the description 'Magnificent Seven in the mud' serves very well to describe the plot. After a slowish start where we see Brain Cox as Baron Albany recruiting his warriors Yul Brinner style from whore houses, prisons and the like the action really takes off when the group take over the castle and the real fighting begins. And there is a lot of fighting! Limbs get hacked off, heads get slice in two, gut spill their contents and blood splatters everywhere. To say the violence was visceral would be an understatement the films really cranks up the gore and I suspect looking at the type of weapons that were actually used in this period the injuries are realistic. Paul Giamatti really delights in his evil interpretation of the disliked monarch bent on bloody revenge. We see him through his violent conduit the gigantic leader of the Danish mercenaries Tiberius with his impossibly huge axe cutting tongues out, chopping off hands and feet and for the lucky ones a simple hanging suffices.
The camerawork will probably divide people's opinions. The director Jonathan English has used the shaky camera approach which we have now seen in countless action movies (think of the Bourne series) to produce a sense of heightened excitement in the battle scenes probably slightly overdone to the detriment of the fighting choreography. They also obviously decided to go overboard on the gritty feel in both action and look of the film. Everyone is mud-splattered and ...well dirty, all apart from our heroine Kate Mara as Lady Isabel who ultimately failed to convince as the medieval maiden in distress. In fact she seemed too modern in her outlook, defying her husband and flirting with the devout Templar knight. On the whole the characters aren't that well developed and the films looks more like an adaptation of a graphic novel concentrating more on the action than anything else.
The least successful aspect of the film is the love story between the Knight Marshall and the lady Isabel, the feelings between them didn't convince and the story didn't benefit from this distraction, simply slowing down the narrative for little dramatic benefit. The film would probably have been little more than a serviceable action adventure if it wasn't for Paul Giamatti as 'bad and mad' King John. I don't think I've seen someone steal the show as utterly as he does since Alan Rickman did in Kevin Costner's 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves'. Unlike Rickman Giamatti doesn't provide the character with any light comic relief he plays it straight with a lot of beard chewing, feet stamping speeches showing John to be an egotistical, paranoid and extremely violent man who has complete belief in his right to rule absolutely. He is as he states in the film "God's Right Hand!" It is an over the top performance but deliciously watchable.
A few things could have been done better; the dialogue at times is rather clunky and lazy. Some of the props also fail to convince in certain scenes, for instance in a break from the siege action when Marshall and Isabel are talking he shows her his long sword (as you do if you are Knight trying to impress a maiden!) and despite its size and you would assume its weight she seems to manage to pick it up and swing it around as it is were made of plastic. I don't think so!
The film has provoked a fair amount of negative reaction from any critics but I actually enjoyed it. The story gallops along at a fair pace especially considering that as with any siege story a burst of action is naturally followed by spells of simply waiting as both forces regroup. The cast packed full of very good actors as you'd expect delivers some fine performances. Purefoy is a little too stoic and moody similar to his performance in 'Solomon Kane' to enable audience to really warm to him but the action sequences especially the battle scenes toward the end of the movie involving the siege engines and the burning pigs (don't want to give too much away!) are great fun and visually impressive especially taking into account the modest budget. So yes...medieval England graphic novel style...not bad.
CAST AND TECH SPECS
Paul Giamatti...King John
Charles Dance...Archbishop Langdon
Rhys Parry Jones...Wulfstan
Directed by Jonathan English
Written by Jonathan English (story & screenplay), Erick Kastel (co-screenplay), Stephen McDool (first screenplay).
Runtime: 121 min
UK certificate: 15- rather generous for the violent content.
© Mauri 2011