There’s a few movie genres we don’t seem to get as much from these days, one being the Western, and another being films in Medieval settings. There was a time not so long ago when Hollywood was more embracing of the sword and sorcery epics, but these days it’s all about remakes and sequels. The closest we’ve come lately to touching the type of film I’m talking about is the update for CLASH OF THE TITANS, and that’s hardly doing justice to the moviegoer. Thankfully, IRONCLAD has come along to remind us what good old fashioned (and might I add realistic) knights in battle cinema should be. I got a chance to see an advance screening of the film at this year’s Dallas International Film Festival – the actual release date in the U.S. isn’t until June, but I just couldn’t wait to talk about it.
IRONCLAD follows the true story (with some understandable character embellishment) of King John’s attempt to take Rochester Castle, going against the wishes of the Church and Magna Carta in old England. The year is 1215, and English barons have forced King John (Paul Giamatti) to sign and seal the Magna Carta, an important document that would definite the rules of Royals and free men by way of the Church. Not long after, the King puts together an army of ruthless warriors, and begins taking over lands he holds no right to rule, going against the Church and his own restrictions. When King John’s actions take the lives of peaceful Knights of Templar and their accompanying man of faith, one surviving Knight named Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy) manages to just barely escape. Archbishop Langton (Charles Dance) comes up with a idea to throw a wrench into John’s plans, by having men take control of Rochester Castle, a small but strategically important area of land. The effort is led by Albany (Brian Cox), who forms a group of battling mercenaries, including Marshall, all hoping to stop the tyrannical King. As Albany assembles his men, a spy reports their intentions to King John, who sends his own small group to Rochester ahead of them. Once Albany’s group arrives, a battle ensues, and we see that this unlikely team collectively is a force to be reckoned with. But thousands of opposing warriors are in route, and Rochester’s Baron Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) doesn’t believe anyone daring to fight them stands a chance. Cornhill’s unhappy young bride Lady Isabel (Kate Mara) quickly becomes fascinated with Marshall, and unlike her husband hopes to stand and fight with her people. And with that, less than 20 people take up arms against King John’s imposing warriors… could they possibly stand a chance of winning?
When watching IRONCLAD it’s impossible not to think of other films like it, particularly the glossy Hollywood epics like ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, or even the Ridley Scott ROBIN HOOD of more recent years. But what makes this film stand apart from those movies is it’s gritty realism and strong performances. IRONCLAD is a knight in shining armor movie without the Hollywood shine on its cinematic armor, and it’s magnificent as a result. Director Jonathan English and producer Rick Benattar were on hand at the screening talking about their original intentions behind making the film, mentioning they wanted a SAVING PRIVATE RYAN aspect to the storytelling, putting the audience in the middle of the battle. They achieved just that, and it works beautifully. One of the more noticeable aspects of the movie is its violence, which is rather intense and incredibly graphic. At first, even the most strong-stomached audience members may find themselves wincing or ever turning away a bit in horror, but as the film moves along something interesting happens… you get so caught up in the storytelling that the violence becomes an acceptable part of it. I actually noticed people around me who started out the movie hiding their eyes in gory scenes, later looking straight on during the film’s most graphic moments. This is how it was back then, the brutality of battle, and the suddenness of death. The filmmakers in this instance didn’t shy away from what made those times so rough, but instead embraced the moments of battle in an amazingly effective way.
The acting is also superb as well. The choice of Paul Giamatti as King John is unusually inspired, and I’m happy to say works very well. As one would expect, Giamatti brings his quietly building intensity to an important and difficult role. As King John, he must display the strength of a Royal man in a position of power, the inadequacy to be a man of the people, and the eventual descent into madness. Paul balances all of these aspects with sublime perfection, and delivers one of his strongest (if not most unexpected) performances to date. Casting him for this was a daring choice, but it paid off big time. James Purefoy, in my opinion, is always good. He’s like a more serious but less recognizable Hugh Jackman – a good-looking and competent actor that brings a sincerity and believable quality to all of his roles, no matter what time period they’re in. As Marshall, he has one of the most thankless parts, being the quiet hero who’s mysterious nature in only eclipsed by his abilities in battle. Remember Gerard Butler in 300? Take away all the posturing and screaming, but leave the noble strength and leading charisma… that’s Purefoy in this, and it’s played beautifully and subtle. I’m still confused over why SOLOMON KANE, another excellent leading performance from Purefoy, was swept under the rug in America. Kate Mara is stunning and equally mysterious as Lady Isabel, playing the unhappy woman forced into her status, understandably fascinated with an outsider like Marshall. There’s a great honesty and lack of glamour to her portrayal, which again goes against all the typical Hollywood heroines we see in these types of films. Brian Cox is terrific and very likable as Albany, showing great strength and charm with the audience. Cox has always impressed me, and it’s fun to see him in a strong role like this. There’s great supporting performances from Aneurin Barnard as the well-meaning but inexperienced young man of the group, Jason Flemyng as the ladies man tough guy Beckett, Mackenzie Crook as the crossbow expert Marks (getting serious after his amusing role in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films), Rhys Parry Jones as the Little John-like big man of the team named Wulfstan, Jamie Foreman as the un-couth but amusing Coteral (loved him in LAYER CAKE), Vladimir Kulich as King John’s imposing right hand man, and Bree Condon as Beckett’s newfound lover. And of course, as one would expect, the wonderful Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi are highly confident and effective with their respective performances as well. It’s one of the best overall casts I think I’ve ever seen in this kind of movie.
With a reported budget of somewhere around $20 million, IRONCLAD looks like $100 million. There’s no skimping on the amazing battle sequences or convincing gore effects, and the look of the film is highly polished without looking pretentious. The castle set alone is impressive and immersive. Even the powerful score by Lorne Balfe (who comes from the Hans Zimmer school of composing) is a perfect compliment to the action and drama throughout the movie. Jonathan English never gives in to the temptation of over-glamorizing any moment throughout the production, but rather lets his screenplay (which he co-wrote with Erick Kastel) and sincere performances speak for themselves. This is masterful filmmaking done the right way, and a welcome addition to the 2011 slate. The idea of Paul Giamatti playing King John was what initially intrigued me about seeing this movie, but the overall end result is what will have me recommending this treasure to others. It’s an important piece of history that few may really know about, and it’s told in a way everyone should be able to respect and enjoy. One of the best films I experienced at the Dallas International Film Festival this year wasn’t a typical “Film Festival” feature, but it’s one I’m very glad I got the chance to watch. IRONCLAD is exciting, brutal and brilliant – an absolute must-see.