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BLOOD WILL RUN!
Member Name: Mauri
Date: 14/10/11, updated on 14/10/11 (67 review reads)
Advantages: Good performances, good set piece battle scenes
Disadvantages: Creaky language, love story element
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
Summary: Medieval 'magnificent seven'!