Film Review: Ironclad

Like Takashii Miike&#8217;s <i>13 Assassins</i>, <i>Ironclad </i>takes a familiar genre&#8212;the historical action picture&#8212;and colors it blood-red.

1215: In a humiliating capitulation to the will of the people—or at least a small slice of his country’s wealthy, well-born, land-owning elite—England’s unpopular King John (Paul Giamatti) has been forced to sign the Magna Carta, which greatly curtails his power and confers previously unimaginable rights on his subjects. But John has been King long enough to know you don’t hang onto your throne by bowing to “my word is my bond” niceties or tolerating dissent; the ink is barely dry when he begins assembling an army—composed largely of Danish mercenaries under the command of ruthless Viking warrior Tiberius (Vladimir Kulich)—with the intent of making an example of every man who challenged his divine right to rule.

Then as now, secret plans have a way of not remaining secret and Baron Albany (Brian Cox) gets wind of John’s perfidy; he quickly figures out that the King and his army are headed for strategically located Rochester castle and decides to take it first. Albany begins recruiting men willing to fight for their newly won rights—rights that exist more in theory than practice—and puts together a core group of battle-tested soldiers, some of whom came through their trials by fire better than others. They include perpetual hound-dog Beckett (Jason Flemyng), convict Coteral (Jamie Foreman), inexperienced Guy (Aneurin Barnard), fat family man Wulfstan (Rhys Parry Jones), archer Marks (Mackenzie Crook) and Templar knight Marshall (James Purefoy), back from the crusades and mired in a crisis of faith, but not Lord Cornhill (Derek Jacobi), master of Rochester castle. Not that Albany and his crew particularly care where his sympathies lie and not that there’s much he can do about anything, though the same can’t be said for Cornhill’s sexy, much younger wife, Lady Isabel (Kate Mara), who inevitably stirs up trouble by being, well, young and sexy.

Ironclad belongs to the school of aggressively deglamorized historical epics that dates back to John Boorman’s Excalibur and includes the more recent King Arthur, Robin Hood and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. The old-school romance, idealism and courage in the face of death (along with the inevitable massage of facts in the service of fiction) are still there, but they’re coated in blood and mud and boils.

Director Jonathan English brought a surprisingly assured sensibility to the low-budget Minotaur (2006), and gets remarkable production value out of Ironclad’s less-than-epic budget, and the screenplay by English, Erick Castel and Stephen McDool appears to be the product of meticulous research into a bit of history that seems as unfamiliar to the English public at large as it is to the average American. Overall, the film has a grubby grandeur that’s probably truer to the contradictions of its time, when enormous wealth and power couldn’t buy niceties like toilets, hot running water or decent dental care, than the average Hollywood effort. Not that Hollywood makes a lot of historical epics these days, given that their appeal is notoriously hard to predict, no matter how good the elements look on paper: Who knows why Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was an award-winning crowd-pleaser and his Kingdom of Heaven sank without a trace?

That said, while Ironclad is a cruelly handsome piece of work, it seems unlikely that it will find a wide U.S. theatrical audience, especially sandwiched between summer extravaganzas like the second Transformers sequel and the last Harry Potter film. With any luck, its audience will find it on DVD.