Ironclad’s story has a significant purpose, one which captures the contemporary imagination: freedom for every man. It’s for this reason that we empathise with its characters’ determination to defend this ideal from the tyrannical rule of the Roman Catholic Church and the King. Hence, we easily commit to the grounds for the barbarity.
After the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, Ironclad is – in the simplest of terms – predominantly anti-royal and republican in nature. The story picks up in 1215, after debauched King John (Paul Giamatti) is forced to meet the demands of his discontented barons and sign the Magna Carta. Even though this document was more about taxation hikes and the nobility’s treatment, English plays to the romantic notion of it being about human rights protection against royal rule. A furious King John then decides to reinforce his rule and slaughter the barons involved, with the dubious blessing of the Pope and the Vatican, plus a little Viking manpower from some disgruntled Danes angered by the Church’s involvement in their lands.
However, one plucky Baron Albany (Brian Cox) and his mishmash of a half a dozen men decide to make a stand against the King and his thugs. They defend the common man’s honour from Britain’s pinnacle of power, Castle Rochester in Kent, until the French Army arrives to liberate the land, and install a French Prince on the English throne. It’s glorious, heroic and epic stuff to prompt a defiant roar from every English lion.
Ironclad sets the grim scene well, but has a few surprises. It goes a step further than previous historical efforts, by placing the viewer directly within the relentless battle action, and creating a terrifying sense of claustrophobia and threat of axe attack at any moment. In fact, we see men hacked in half before us, from head to toe, and others losing limbs, which are subsequently used to beat others senseless, whilst the camera lens gets sprayed in claret. It has a thrillingly destructive momentum to it.
That said English’s preference for Michael Bay’s favourite cinematic tool of 5D cameras to reproduce erratic action – as in Transformers – greatly jars, making watching the action unbearable and nauseating in parts. In fact, this lessens the authenticity somewhat, creating an experience like that of a video game, which is a shame and probably really not necessary.
The reality of the siege the Baron’s resistance fighters face is greatly heightened by the testing length of the film (121 minutes) and its equally testing weather conditions. But the latter helps recreate some magnificently extravagant and quite stunning panoramic views to show the gloomy conditions of the era, even if the former fails prey to some lagging moments in the story, as our ‘heroes’ await the next onslaught.
One thing is for certain: Ironclad would not be half the film it is, if it were not for some memorable and quite captivating talent. Giamatti is a tonic as the deranged and bile-spewing King John verses Cox as audacious Albany. Deliciously overplayed to the hilt, their performances mark the key points, with one momentous confrontation near the end, in a film that sensibly places moments of ironic humour throughout to provide a respite from all the death.
James Purefoy as disillusioned Templar Knight Marshall again demonstrates why he’s first choice in any historical affair. Purefoy has a rousing and magnetic presence as the great, unsung anti-hero, cultivated by his stint in Rome and other such period roles. His role greatly bolsters the romantic notion of story – and he should also be commended for swinging around a five-foot Templar Knight sword replica.
Nevertheless, one casting does not sit comfortably. 127 Hours actress Kate Mara plays opposite Purefoy as Marshall’s love interest, Lady Isabel. Isabel is like a ‘Maid Marion on heat’, delivering some of the corniest lines in the lull moments to seduce her knight. Mara appears a little too youthful and not nearly naive enough to be fully credible in the role, even though she’s meant to be a young wife. Her cringe-worthy attempts at getting Marshall in the sack seem almost immaturely ludicrous and definitely unladylike in the spate of things. If she is trying to be portrayed as a strong female for that contingent of the audience to identity with, her casting sadly backfires. That said there are some excellent performances to enjoy from Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng, Jamie Foreman and Casualty’s Aneurin Barnard as Albany’s band of merry mutilators, as well as British acting royalty Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance.
Ironclad is an unapologetic, bold and praiseworthy piece from English, considering the independent nature of the production and its ‘cheaper’ budget (£20 million). It’s designed to bang the patriotic drum, not only in the story, but also for British film-making that’s taken a battering in itself in the past year. Indeed, it provides a healthy example of a true British epic contender to rival those of the mainstream variety that are out soon, like a lone voice of resilience that you can’t help but root for.