Ironclad review

Ironclad deals with the immediate aftermath of the signing of Magna Carta, one of the pivotal events in English history and the foundation of Parliamentary democracy. After King John's coercion by a group Barons into signing at Runnymede, he immediately turns about face and wages a campaign to reclaim the countries strategically important castles, leading to the siege at Rochester which forms the centrepiece of the action.

At the centre of Ironclad is Purefoy's Templar knight Thomas Marshall. Conflicted and questioning his faith because of his experiences in the Holy land he leads a tiny group of mercenaries in a hopeless defence of Rochester against the Danish mercenaries in the pay of Paul Gimatti's King John. Giamatti brings just the right level of the campness that is essential to King John, not as prissy as Ustinov in the Disney animation, or as obviously sinister as Claude Rains in the Adventures of Robin Hood. John is spoiled, inadequate, humiliated and desperate to be back in control of his manifest destiny. There's a great scene between Brian Cox and Giamatti, where they tear into each other as King John threatens to cut off the barons hands and feet whilst justifying his belief in the divine right of kings.

Very few of the characters in Ironclad with the exception the Danish mercenaries and Guy the young squire have much  nobility of purpose,  they are either after money, sex, adventure, redemption or a combination of all four. Religion hangs heavily over all of these characters, the Danes fight to preserve their pagan way of life against the threat of an invasion by the popes armies, Thomas keeps fighting because he has yet to fulfil his oath to the order. All the while the King , the Archbishop, The Barons and Pope all claim a higher calling for their  political actions and personal ambitions.

The action at Rochester is joyously visceral, the broadswords, chain mail, boiling oil, siege engines, arrows, maces and flails pierce skin and crunch bone. Blood pours and oozes out of wounds, skin rips and faces gurn. We are thrust into the centre of the battle, the confusion, the pain and the adrenaline are all wonderfully realised, just fast and brutal enough to take the story forward but clear enough so we can make sense of the the siege and how our flawed heroes are.

That is one of the clear strengths of Ironclad, that although the seven have ambiguity of of motive, their purpose is clear, to hold the castle or die trying, to give all they have to their comrades and their cause regardless of consequence. Their personalities emerge as they progress through the siege, and their comrades die around them,  the sex obsessed Beckett (Jason Flemyng) just gets on with things with little sentiment, but has his own moral compass which is needed at crucial moments. Derek Jacobi softly spoken and possibly homosexual is in the wrong era, the brutality of this age is not for him. Brian Cox, stout and resolute but weary of the game he has to play. Guy played by Aneurin Barnarnd, beautiful and doomed to follow in the footsteps of Thomas as a man of peace always having to fight a war.       

Ironclad is not an epic, it's a chamber piece, the smallness of the situation, barely 15 people fighting an army of a few hundred at most give it an intensity that would be diminished by legions of CGI soldiers and flashy special effects. It's power is in demonstrating the small actions that may change the world that we live, as well as our inability to ever know whether a sacrifice is worthwhile.

Ironclad at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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