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Nicolas Winding Refn
It is the year 1215 and the rebel barons of England have forced their despised King John to put his royal seal to the Magna Carta, a noble, seminal document that upheld the rights of free-men. Yet within months of pledging himself to the great charter, the King reneged on his word and assembled a mercenary army on the south coast of England with the intention of bringing the barons and the country back under his tyrannical rule. Barring his way stood the mighty Rochester castle, a place that would become the symbol of the rebel's momentous struggle for justice and freedom. Written by
Rascal King John and the Medieval Magnificent Seven.
Ironclad is directed by Jonathan English who also wrote the story and co-adapts the screenplay with Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool. It stars James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi, Kate Mara, Paul Giamatti, Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook, Jamie Foreman and Vladimir Kulich. Music is scored by Lorne Balfe and cinematography by David Eggby.
1215 and having been forced to sign the Magna Carta, King John (Giamatti) enlists an army of Danish mercenaries and plots revenge against all involved. As John lays bloody waste to the South of England, a small band of rebels led by William d'Aubigny (Cox), plot to defend the Southern stronghold of Rochester Castle in the hope they can delay John long enough for the French army to arrive from the sea to depose him.
The history, as is often the case in movies of this ilk, is sketchy and exaggerated, we are in true cinematic granted licence here as Rochester Castle is defended by less then 20 men and a couple of gals (in truth there was a considerable army defending Rochester). Yet Ironclad's sheer willingness to blend historical and period notices with blood and mud is very appealing to the swords and shields genre fan. The recreation of 13th century England is most impressive, as is the adherence to the brutality of the times. Armour and swords do clank with aural sharpness, quickly followed by blood and dismemberment; the body horror is certainly not in short supply throughout the running time. The colour is deliberately muted to capture a realistic feel, and although the shaky-cam technique used for the fight scenes (is this now written in the historical epic director's 101 handbook?) will irritate many, it does aid the grit and grue atmosphere that director English goes for. In fact he has achieved much with only a modest budget.
A splendid cast has assembled for the production, all thankfully attired with thought from the costume department. Purefoy cuts a fine rugged figure of machismo, brooding for all he's worth as he battles not only the enemy, but also his own duel with his Templar faith. Cox is, no surprise, full of gusto and leadership qualities, and the likes of Flemyng (whore chaser as brave as a lion), Crook (ace archer) and Foreman (no fear thief) add considerable grungy brawn to proceedings. Charles Dance and Jacobi lend thespian support and Kulich is a towering presence as axe wielding leader of the Danes, Tiberius. Highlight, though, is Giamatti. True enough to say that as written it's a portrait of a vicious King we have seen plenty of times before, but Giamatti elevates this one to better heights with a glint in his eye and thunderous moments of anger. For his delivery of "I am God's right hand" speech this begs respect. His accent holds as well, always a bonus is that.
Where the picture falls down is with a script that contains duff passages of dialogue and the obligatory romance thread. Poor Kate Mara (stepping in when Megan Fox scampered from the production), it's a thankless role that basically asks her to turn the head of Purefoy's Templar Knight, hitch up her skirt and look wistful from time to time, while having Cox bellow out that John "is no more a King than the boil on my arse" hinders rather than aids the mood. But English and the makers get away with the missteps because it's such good rousing fun, a nifty blend of religion, politics and bloody war. The siege itself is very well orchestrated, as catapult engines bombard the castle, arrows penetrate the sky, men leap around on fire or scolded by hot oil, and there's interesting facts and tricks etched into the narrative too (burning of pigs a weapon of war?!). It may never quite reach the ambitions it sets itself, but in an era when swords and shields movies are in short supply, it's an entertaining and bloody romp for sure. 7.5/10
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