“Barbaric, patriotic and absurdly masculine, IRONCLAD is battle-scene cinema worth its salt”
Director Jonathan English has carved out an underrated slice of 13th Century history-what King John did next. A lot of spitting and hysterics, as it happens. A British film of heartening ambition, IRONCLAD has suffered constant kill-zone budget cuts and cast changes since it’s inception in 2008. Now, it sieges our screens filled with fury, bloodshed and impressive swordplay. While english audiences are still reeling from the sovereign bowing pride of The King’s Speech, IRONCLAD’s patriotism follows a different path-one that condemns the monarchy’s (then) oppressive regime. A stout Paul Giammati plays cantankerous King John, roaming England on the warpath, just weeks after the Magna Carta. With the Pope in his back pocket and the Danes nipping at his heels-he fights to assert his power by amputating the tongues and such.
To stir up a common rebellion, Baron Albany, a Gandalf-type figure played by Brian Cox rallies a grimy gang of axe swingers with nothing better to do. With a baggie full of jagged coins, he convinces them to barricade the castle of Rochester from King John-an act which created a tipping point in British history. By his side, a solemn James Purefoy plays worthy Templar knight, Marshall. Reduced to pious kill-bot during the Crusades, Marshall is shaken by the lives he has taken in the name of the Templar order. For IRONCLAD, Purefoy seems happily type cast as the gruff warrior. After his role in Solomon Kane, Purefoy has become worryingly comfortable with brutal fight scenes. As a Templar Knight, he carries ‘the long sword’ an insanely lethal (and awkward) weapon, when it first appears, Purefoy keeps a straight face but his eyes scream “look at my big god damn sword, for I am MAN!” Much of Marshall’s backstory is implied through prolonged, pained expressions-thankfully, Purefoy’s acting is strong enough to carry the burden. THN likes to think of Purefoy as the thinking man’s James Bond. Aloof and impossibly cool in this picture, he only serves to prove our point.
Also in the bite-sized army is Marks, a surprising appearance from Mackenzie Crook (the bloke from The Office with the body of a baby bird) whose performance, though minimal, commands your attention with a quiet confidence. Then there is Beckett (whose name should be given cockney slang of “lad’s favourite”). A virile man’s man played by Jason Flemming, Beckett adds tiny flecks of comic value to the film. When the blood has cooled on the morbid battle field, he scurries off to rutt with another lucky wench.
Most reviews will bandy about terms like “extreme violence” but the truth is, IRONCLAD is an honest, somehow beautiful depiction of Medieval savagery. English launches the viewer into claustrophobic conditions with tight, flawless shots of hand to hand combat that mirrors the intensity of Spartan epic 300. We’ve seen men sliced and diced in battle scenes across film history but English places you firmly behind the portcullis spikes to experience the gore first-hand. It offers a troubling visceral reaction as you not only see, but hear the raucous splatter of blood-you feel the thud as bodies crash to the ground. The fight scenes are lengthy, but manage to hold attention through finely tuned camera work-no angle remains the same for more than a few seconds. Thankfully, English avoids the mistake of a nauseous hand-held camera or the unconvincing ‘dirty lens’ trick.
Unlike most films in the genre, IRONCLAD develops its characters with impeccable subtlety. Though we see very little dialogue between this core group of men, you somehow begin to care for them and root for their causee. Relatively new face Aneurin Barnard is offered the cliched role of the sniffling squire, Guy, but his battle-ground fear feels so genuine, it’s clear he is one to watch out for.
Unfortunately, IRONCLAD digs its heels in the mud for the second half. Perhaps the film was such a labour of love they were too proud to cut footage or, perhaps they wanted to project the men’s struggle onto the audience-confined for weeks in Rochester castle. In this lingering hour we see Lady Isabel (Kate Mara), the ‘lady’ of the house offer relentless come-on’s to celibate Templar, Marshall. If English intended for Mara to become a defiant female figure-he did not succeed. Her nymphet face makes the story line feel false, and a tad sinister. As Isabel lifts her heavy velvet to reveal a white virginal thigh-it starts to feel a bit Carry-On-King John.
Pitfalls and all, IRONCLAD is a triumph for British film. It shines the light on a little-known story of powerful cinematic value. Barbaric, patriotic and absurdly masculine, IRONCLAD is battle-scene cinema worth its salt. God knows it’s been a while.