After the signing of the Magna Carta (a document securing the rights of the ‘free-men’ of England), the treacherous King John (Paul Giamatti) starts a campaign to reclaim ‘his’ country by force, using an army of savage mercenaries. Key to his agenda is the taking of the strategically placed Rochester Castle. Providing the only resistance is Baron Albany (Brian Cox) and templar knight, Marshall (James Purefoy) who gather a small gang of unlikely warriors to defend the castle until the French can deliver a new monarch to restore order.
There are two things that the British do better than anyone else in the world, insofar as TV and films are concerned, the first is nature documentaries (David Attenborough is king), and the second is lavish, period based entertainment, be they Elizabethan, Victorian, Edwardian, or in the case of Ironclad, medieval. It’s the reveling in detail that makes the difference, in costume, in environment, and it is indeed this attention to detail that supplies one of the three reasons why it is worth giving Ironclad a look.
Director Jonathan English and his production team have gone to great efforts where detail in set and costume design is concerned, but rather than calling attention to it, have opted for a no nonsense, natural, murky look to the film that gets down right filthy looking as the story and battles progress.
Not so accomplished is the writing. The film, for all intents and purposes another take on The Seven Samurai, is hindered by the fact that only Paul Giamatti’s King John has more than two dimensions to his character, the rest of the characters simply conform to a basic stereotype, brave leader (Brian Cox), tortured soul (James Purefoy), valiant follower (Mackenzie Crook), rookie (Aneurin Barnard), comic relief (Jamie Foreman) etc. The cast don’t do bad with what they’re given, but they don’t do great either, making the segments between any Giamatti or siege scene drag on, slowing the film down to such an extent that it feels just too long. Giamatti IS great though, one particular scene, in which he tirades before an injured Brian Cox, I have no doubt will be one of my favourite scenes of the year. Fantastic.
And so the violence (oh the violence), when it occurs, is spectacular. Good old fashioned, practical effects driven, blunt force trauma, arc an’ slay style violence. Heads are removed, limbs are severed, bodies are crushed, cleaved in two and set alight (not at the same time). The problem? It constantly leaves you wanting more while the in-between scenes plod along.
If manly violence isn’t your cup of tea and you aren’t moved by the craft of grungy filmmaking, then in all honesty, Ironclad really isn’t for you. It isn’t as good as last year’s Centurion and it’s not as much fun as the Purefoy starring Solomon Kane, but it is a hell of a lot better than the 2004 Clive Owen, Keira Knightley King Arthur flick, which trod the same Seven Samurai ground… Remember that?… No?… I’m not surprised, it was pretty crap.
D grade – for story
B+ grade – for visuals
C+ grade – for acting
B+ grade – for violence
Overall grade – C+