August 9, 2013

Movie Review: Ironclad (2011)

If you weren't sleeping through Social Studies or World History during your education, you heard about the Magna Carta. The ancestor of the Declaration of Independence, it was signed by King John of England after a barons' rebellion in June of 1215. So John had his power reduced, the barons had more freedom and that was that. Right?

Of course not. King John was ripped about what he saw as a block against his God-given right to rule. So he went about putting the barons back under his thumb in The First Barons' War. And that is where Ironclad begins. King John (Paul Giamatti) is moving against the Barons, and Rochester Castle is the key to all of England. So before he can take it, the Archbishop of Canterbury sends Lord Albany (Brian Cox) and a renegade Templar Knight (James Purefoy) named Marshall to find some men and hold Rochester Castle against King John until Prince Louis of France can arrive to support the barons.*

The plot really is that simple. There is some sub-plot about the young wife (Kate Mara) of the castle's lord (Derek Jacobi) falling in love with Marshall, but is it at it's core a "men on a mission" movie sent in 13th Century England. And it's good.

First off, it's realistic. Producer Rick Benattar actually recreated Rochester Castle on the studio. It is grimy, dirty and poorly lit. The courtyard is full of mud. It looks like the real thing. The battle scenes are full of blood and gore, just like a real battle with swords and axes would be. One highlight is a man getting his arm severed and then another man getting beaten to death with the severed arm. That had to have happened at least once in England in the 13th Century.

Second, the cast is solid. You have Giamatti really nailing King John as someone who believes that his rule is his birthright and no baron will tell him otherwise. He is arrogant, petulant, intelligent and cowardly all at once. Purefoy is adequate as Marshall, a man who speaks more with his sword than his mouth. But what helps is having men like Cox and Jacobi in supporting roles. It just elevates the quality of the film as a whole.

Director Jonathan English has done a good job combining the "men on a mission" motif (usually found in Westerns and WW2 films) with the "last stand" genre (think Zulu) and then grafting that to the Middle Ages. I'd like to see more of them. The battles are shot up close and personal, with all the yelling, screaming and dying you'd expect from a pitched sword battle. And the special effects are solid; the final breaching of the keep is pretty spectacular.

Negatives...well, the whole romance subplot b/t Purefoy and Mara is pretty tacked on. And the historical accuracy is hit-and-miss, but that is more a sticking point for nerds like myself.

But Ironclad is a fun little film if you enjoy these kind of flicks. I caught it on VOD when it first came out. Now you can see it on Netflix Instant.


* Sounds weird, but the French and English were still pretty close at this point. Asking Louis to take the throne from John wouldn't be out of line and would be "keeping it in the family" so to speak. The English king held lands in France at this time and was, in a very real way, the vassal of the French King. Having a king be the vassal of another you know why the English and French fought so much.


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