Bloody, vigorous, and as subtle as a mace in the face, Jonathan English’s third feature film is a balls-and-all parade of medieval bash and chop. English takes a true historical incident, the defence of Rochester Castle by William d’Aubigny during the Baronial Revolt against the King John, and renders it as a Seven Samurai variant infused with levels of physical violence that would make Eli Roth blush, in the mould of gritty period anti-swashbuckler defined by the likes of Paul Verhoeven (with Flesh + Blood, 1985) and Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, 1989), and more recently expanded by Ridley Scott and Neil Marshall. As John (Paul Giamatti) lands with an army of Danish mercenaries, determined to win back his country and nullify the Magna Carta the Barons made him sign, d’Aubigny, or Albany as his name is rendered here (Brian Cox, in fine swagger) puts together a team of motley mercenaries to snatch Rochester Castle, the keystone for controlling southern England, from its owner, the aged and timorous royalist Cornhill (Derek Jacobi). Albany’s force includes haunted, but superlatively skilled, Knight Templar Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy), drunken whoremonger and capital swashbuckler William Becket (Jason Flemyng), scar-mottled archer Marks (Mackenzie Crook), illiterate axe-wielding grot Coteral (Jamie Foreman) and a bunch of other scruffy ne’er do wells. They succeed in slaughtering an advance guard John has placed in the castle, and, in spite of numbering no more than twenty men-at-arms, prepare to hold off John’s Viking thugs until a promised French relief army arrives, an event Marshal holds little hope for as experiences in the
Holy Land taught him.
Ironclad’s screenplay, written by English with Erick Kastel and Stephen McDool, is rather too blunt and inelegant in setting up its characters and story threads, to really make the film as epic and affecting as the greatest period action-adventures. John is instantly characterised as a vicious psycho, so there’s little political subtlety to a movie which affects an atmosphere of doubt and moral terror, yet renders the complex issues and results of the Baronial Revolt secondary to standard tyranny versus freedom rhetoric. Still, John's rant to Albany late in the film is a virulent piece of divine-right pique. The final irony of the Barons and their pet Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) having gone to so much effort to help a French prince take command of their government isn’t entirely without ironic heft, but the attempt to build a conflicted but resolute hero in Marshal just results in a standard glowering, reticent tough guy. A sense of powerful ethical commitment and grinding metaphysical weight is invoked more through the visuals, with a grimy beauty throughout punctuated by moments of unexpected etherealness, as in the appearance of John’s army out of dawn mists like an emanation from the shores of Valhalla, and the sheer gruelling horror of the battles and scenes depicting John’s cruel, wrathful campaign of fear-mongering. John’s leading Danish warrior, Tiberias (The 13th Warrior’s Vladimir Kulich), as well as being Marshal’s equal/opposite from a pagan land, is being held on a leash with threats of Papal violence against his homeland. Marshal hopes his vows as a Templar can save him from damnation, but the harder he fights for his vows the worse he feels.
’s young squire Guy (Aneurin Barnard) proves himself as a warrior but stares into an existential abyss in actually experiencing war. Marshal, a truly great soldier, abandons a vow of silence when he sees his abbot friend and patron’s tongue cut out in a fit of John’s pique, and gets stuck in with righteous fury as Cornhill’s young, neglected wife Isabel (Kate Mara) tries to distract him with a sexual interest infused with a desire to touch his obviously contorted soul. Albany
The film maintains a simple, pummelling sense of physical and psychic urgency which Scott’s lame Robin Hood (2010), in spite of its revisionism, couldn’t swing in tackling the same historical epoch and its fluctuations in reckoning human worth. A long, compelling sequence in which John, having captured Albany and some his men with the rest holed up in the Keep, has hands and feet hacked off after delivering a mocking tirade in reply to Albany’s democratic pretensions, culminates in having Albany’s curtailed carcass catapulted at the Keep’s wall. John then lurches away to stand meditatively in a muddy river shallow and recall one of his father’s nastier lessons in regal untouchability, yet revealing he hasn’t learnt the more subtle aspect of the lesson. Here, the film offers a stocktaking sense of the nature of tyranny as apparent in both in John’s espousal of divine right, and in a directly physical sense in his hysterical acts of butchery, suggesting the spiritual cost to the oppressor as well as the resister. Giamatti and Cox, unsurprisingly, keep the film in order, with Jacobi mostly limited to one of his increasingly familiar fey old patrician parts. Giamatti, as well as seeming to enjoy a chance to declaim with force rather than playing another contemporary eunuch, captures something remorseless and pathetic all at once in the monstrous John, and Cox, who probably should have started playing bristling heraldic heroes thirty years ago, effortlessly investing Albany with grit and seriousness in spite of his sometimes shaky stand on principle. Purefoy as usual is an intense and attractive screen persona, but also as usual never seems to let his guard down any more than the character does, and so he and Mara, whilst both decent enough actors, seem to often be acting at one another rather than together, and like too many romances in this sort of thing it just never catches fire.
English’s fight direction relies on furious camera motion and glimpses of grotesque corporeal damage to give his action heft and urgency, and for the most part it works in keeping his film constantly reared and kicking like a bucking bronco, but it also means that it lacks the distinctive mix of visual grace and immediacy of Marshall’s superior Centurion (2010), and also misses Marshall’s gift for swiftly invested human elements. Subplots whirl, including Isabel’s relationship with her husband, whose tastes “do not include me” and who seems genuinely beset by a deep metaphysical despair about what Albany’s crusade is dooming them to, and Becket’s instant lust-affair with scruffy serving wench Agnes (Bree Condon) who gets herself killed as she and Isobel lend their literal weight to trying to keep the enemy out. But these aspects, which should form the human heart of the film, don’t coalesce into anything more than sketches in the margins. The great appeal of the siege movie, in spite of the virtually inevitable scenes like the harum-scarum final moments of near defeat and last-minute arrival of the cavalry, is the way it offers a situation in which human gestures become enlarged purely by circumstance, and the easy fashion in which a storyteller can jump from interpersonal vignettes to flurries of violence and back again. But English seems in too much of a hurry, as if simultaneously he aspires to the grandeur of the historical film and yet is too fearful of being skewered for being unmanly if he lets it slow and breathe for a moment. Whilst you can't accuse Ironclad of pretension, in this case just a touch more ambition would have certainly made for a better film.