Directed by Jonathan English.
Starring James Purefoy, Paul Giamatti, Kate Mara, Brian Cox, Jason Flemyng, Mackenzie Crook, Charles Dance, Jamie Foreman, Aneurin Barnard and Derek Jacobi.
In 13th century England a Knights Templar and his rag-tag band of warriors struggle to defend Rochester Castle against the tyrannical King John.
The King’s Speech ruled at the Oscars and did so because of and despite of, three core ingredients. It’s a film that’s independently financed, based closely on historical events and proudly British. It proved that independent films could be both critically acclaimed and box office smashes. It brought to life even stuffy costumed history in a dramatic and engaging way. And it highlighted the world’s appetite for thoroughly English storytelling.
Director Jonathan English is aptly named then in the film industry at this precise moment. His latest project, Ironclad, is out on the 4th March. It shares many of The King’s Speech’s potential handicaps. It took eighteen hard months to raise the money for its ambitious scale and according to the earnest production notes, is a tale “torn from the pages” of English Medieval history. All those involved with the Ironclad team will be hoping that their film also shares some of the success enjoyed by this year’s big Academy Award winner. Producer Andrew Curtis certainly believes that like Tom Hooper’s Royal epic, English’s gritty medieval battle drama will prove that Britain is more than “this little village of filmmakers”.
It’s very hard to find any more comparisons between Ironclad and The King’s Speech. Yes there’s a Royal involved, but Paul Giamatti’s megalomaniac King John in 1215 is poles apart from Colin Firth’s stuttering Bertie. He’s just been forced to sign the Magna Carta, a vital document that would go on to form the foundations of common law in England. This much is well known history, but the film claims the untold story is what John did next; hire an army of Scandinavian mercenaries to kill those behind the drafting of Magna Carta. It’s a piece of paper that concedes too many of John’s powers over his citizens, a humiliation, that he’s pretty damn pissed about. In a rage John sets out to retake his kingdom, only to be blocked by a handful of opponents at strategically important Rochester Castle. From the very start Giamatti plays John, a historical villain we’re all very familiar with, as a man having an endless strop with catastrophic consequences. Revealingly Giamatti comments in the production notes that “I play Hitler, basically”.
Ironclad’s impressive cast is undoubtedly an asset for the film and most of the actors are likeably convincing in their roles. But just as there is a vast gulf between the characters of King John and King George, there is a chasm separating the performances of Firth and Giamatti. In the trailer my expectations for the film were drastically lowered by the sight of Giamatti’s unavoidably ridiculous face barking angry orders; adorned with a silly beard clogged by drool and drizzle. To my pleasant surprise he was better as John than the trailer makes him appear. This however does not change the fact that the American’s accent regularly has the odd wobble and that his scenes are generally the least enjoyable in Ironclad. There’s something about his portrayal of the King that just failed to convince me. Admittedly I do think a lot of this doubt was down to my unease at his weak, unintentionally comedic appearance, obvious from the very beginning and before he had opened his mouth.
I was astonished to read a quote from Rick Benattar, one of the film’s producers who had worked with Giamatti before on Shoot ‘Em Up, that said: “We got him (Giamatti) signed up to play King John and cast the movie around him. That’s how it really started.” Now as I’ve said, Ironclad’s cast is genuinely impressive. British heavyweights like Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance star alongside established actors Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman. One of Giamatti’s better scenes in the film is so good because he’s trading insults and witty jibes with the formidable Brian Cox, manning the ramparts of Rochester Castle with his soldiers. There’s also impressive young talent on show in the form of Kate Mara as the central love interest and Aneurin Barnard as a youthful, idealistic and inexperienced squire. I found the concept of a Medieval Magnificent Seven intriguing and those actors within the castle walls pull it off. But Giamatti’s John is Ironclad’s single biggest flaw and I find it incomprehensible that he was the starting point for such a diverse, quality cast of Brits. More than anything else, he just doesn’t look right as King John.
Enough negatives then, let’s start talking about the good Ironclad has to offer. Perhaps the main reason I was so surprised by how integral Giamatti was to the creation of the project, was that James Purefoy seemed to have the far more pivotal (and praiseworthy) role. He plays an initially mute Templar knight called Marshall, which is an interesting background for the hero of any movie to have. Marshall’s characterisation in the script may not all be remarkably subtle but it is for the most part original and Purefoy’s performance captivating. He more than capably handles the physical side to Ironclad’s action and apparently enjoyed wielding an authentic 5ft sword.
As producer Benattar says, Purefoy made his name as a “spectacular leader and lover” in HBO TV series Rome. Whilst he again plays the man that rallies those around him and falls for a woman in Ironclad, his restrained Templar knight battling a crisis of faith, is very different to arrogant, swaggering Mark Anthony and demonstrates Purefoy’s range of ability. Looking back at his career it’s a real shame that Purefoy hasn’t had more opportunities to completely inhabit a central figure in the narrative as he does here. Before Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, Purefoy was talked of as 007, and he certainly would have looked the part and had the acting chops coupled with a distinctive style. He is the heart of Ironclad and that’s saying something given the rest of the cast.
Aside from assembling such a well known, talented cast, director English was keen to make Ironclad stand out with visceral, realistic and gritty action. From the point of view of historical accuracy, Ironclad feels authentic, whatever liberties it probably took with actual events. The variety of weapons and the set all tend to convince, with the exception to the realistic feel being some dodgy CGI of the castle and surrounding area during otherwise good action set pieces. At times the desire to be hard hitting and true to the reality of Middle Ages gore also went too far, with some blatant green screen shots of limbs being cleaved off or bodies hacked in two. But again generally the filmmakers’ attempts to show “what it’s really like to kill someone with an axe” translate into gripping action.
What picking such fine actors allowed English to do was really ramp up the violence, action and drama and then count on his performers to lighten the sombre mood now and again. An interesting side plot of love between Derek Jacobi’s character’s young wife, played by Kate Mara, and Templar Marshall, is slightly different and a touch more interesting than your conventional diversionary romance, due to the knight’s vow of celibacy. There are also flashes of genuinely amusing and very British humour I wasn’t expecting from such a dreary looking film shot in rain-battered Wales.
Vibrantly realised characters deliver one liners, which could be terribly bad, with attractive style. Asked whether the French will really come to the rescue, Charles Dance’s kindly Bishop of Canterbury, wryly quips “God knows”, glancing to the heavens. And Cox’s Baron D’Albany warns his companion as he makes him hold his sword, that “We may need protection” as they enter a brothel. Only such screen legends could deliver these lines in a way that doesn’t deflate the drama but enriches it with humanity and sprigs of light.
I cannot help but applaud Ironclad for what it proves; that British cinema can compete with the world and produce well acted, exciting action movies. It feels real and very English and director Jonathan can be proud; he deserves his film to succeed. But I can’t help but have reservations. Apart from the occasionally disappointing visual effect, Ironclad’s Achilles heel is Paul Giamatti. He is not terrible but feels out of place with the tone of the rest of the story. It’s a shame the producers felt the need to recruit an American star as an integral part of a very British project. For me his casting undermines the aim of a successful, British and independent film somewhat. That uneasy feeling I regularly got during his moments in the limelight was the only real disappointment of Ironclad; otherwise I found it a good and engaging film.
Ironclad is released in UK cinemas tomorrow.
Liam Trim (follow me on Twitter)
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