Review: IRONCLAD - Medievel Actioner of Outrageous, Authentic Brutality

rating: 4

There's a moment in Ironclad where the full, forceful reality of medieval combat may divide those who relish their violence visceral and bloody, and those who prefer the power of suggestion. That the theme of division neatly describes what the Templar Knight anti-hero Marshall (James Purefoy) does to one of the bad guys from shoulder to groin with a five foot broadsword is neither here not there. The director, Jonathan English, has said that one of his commitments in making Ironclad was to create the most brutal action carnage yet seen in the genre, and on that level success is assured €“ the action kicks off in the first five minutes and rarely stops €“ but what sets the film apart is that the brutality is just part of an engrossing, and well-acted tale. It's the year 1215 and King John (Paul Giamatti) has been forced to sign the Magna Carta, the document that promises the freedom of men and the basis of common law in England. However John's fury at this attack on his divine rights sends him on a journey of retribution, slaughtering the signatories, and with a determination to take back the country. We first see his righteous anger at a castle where Marshall, two more Templar knights, and their priest have taken refuge from the weather, and where in a possibly ill-judged moment the priest attempts to intervene in the castle owner's inevitable demise. Holding one's tongue is patently good advice in the 13th century. Marshall, paying penitence for some undisclosed horror in the Middle East, is himself under a vow of silence, and he and his equally non-verbose companions descend on John's gang of thugs like silent crusader terminators. It's a bravura action opening, Giamatti's King John a spoilt, weary child faced with the equally vicious intransigence of Purefoy's damaged, (un)holy warrior. Further complicating John's re-taking of England is the Baron Albany (a reliably weighty Brian Cox), and his plan to take and hold Rochester Castle, the gateway to London, and the key to controlling the Kingdom. Gathering together a medieval magnificent seven including Marshall, ace bowman Marks (Mackenzie Crook), mercenary Beckett (Jason Flemyng), and Albany's un-blooded squire Guy (Aneurin Barnard), Albany is willing to sacrifice blood and bone to defend his vision of England. Even if that does involve the diplomatic machinations of Charles Dance's rebellious Bishop, and the hopefully helping hand of an army led by the King of France. Naturally, John isn't a monarch to exactly play fair so he hires his own mercenary brood from across the water in Scandinavia to crack Rochester Castle's resolve. Led by the gigantically hirsute Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich) it's a Viking invasion all over again, and together with the very descendant of the Norman invader William the Conqueror you'd be hard-pressed to find more immediately hateful antagonists. However that's where Ironclad's strength really lies; it's determination to not just bludgeon the audience's resolve to a bloody pulp but to give us various shades of moral grey. Tiberius is simply protecting his homeland, fighting for King John's promise that Christianity will stay away from his shores; John himself is defending what he believes is his god-given right to rule; Flemyng's Beckett is a man who is in love with money and fighting but who sacrifices himself for the greater good; and even Baron Albany is a man who sees his own Magna Carta given power slipping away. Barnard's Guy is perhaps the most straightforward of the bunch but even he is forced to learn the mantle and responsibility of extreme violence, even if it is in the name of perceived good. As Marshall though, Purefoy is Ironclad's granite core. A walking, slashing study in self-disgust and rage, sworn to a church that sent him to wreak death in the Holy Land and then issued a Papal decree siding with John's rights to re-take total power, his devotion to his re-adjusted moral compass is tested further by the presence of the beautiful and compelling lady of Rochester Castle, Isabel (a slightly under-used Kate Mara). Like his under-rated Solomon Kane, it's a role of quiet and effortless charisma. In the hands of Jonathan English Ironclad is not only a rousing, action-epic, it's an interesting take on a little known moment in British history. The film-makers obviously revelling in the little historical details (watch out for the pigs in the tunnel) and the sheer effort in bringing it to the screen. Ultimately the unflinching violence, in a very real sense, is the story. It's political or physical misuse in the hands of tyranny, its capacity to rot men's souls, and their redemption from it. It is a film of outrageously authentic brutality. Ironclad is released in the U.K. tomorrow.
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Film writer, drinker of Guinness. Part-time astronaut. Man who thinks there are only two real Indiana Jones movies, writing loglines should be an Olympic event, and that science fiction, comic book movies, 007, and Hal Hartley's Simple Men are the cures for most evils. Currently scripting.