When film fans think period pieces, some think Gladiator, Troy, First Knight, or even Sense and Sensibility. Even when it’s not the prodigal happy ending as in Spartacus or Braveheart, 300 or the aforementioned Troy, these films deliver something lifted out of the darkness in the end. You do too, Ironclad, but just barely. There is nothing sweet about it, and in this case that’s not a bad thing. There is so much humanity quashing along the way that, perhaps for the first time or for the first time in a very long time, you’ve driven home the ‘gut check’ of ultimate futility in the face of Man’s chaotic violence; whether from pride, arrogance or evil!
In this case, it’s 13th-century England. A small group of Knights Templar and assorted riff-raff fight to defend Rochester Castle against the tyrannical King John trying to retain his crown after the signing of the Magna Carta. This film starts with a dark time and heaps on more of the same. When our pure templar protagonist flees a chance encounter with King John after John musters the Danes, it’s bad from the start and going to get worse. As he brings bad tidings to Archbishop Langton, he is tasked with the defense of Rochester until French reinforcements can bolster him. Think The Alamo with worse odds but a better stone keep.
His allies are sparse for the task. Chief Among them is the well played Duke of Albany turned out by a grizzled Brian Cox. As they round up the for-hire troops, all played by top-rate character actors, we get to the Castle in question to have it already entertaining Danes which have to be dispatched before John’s arrival.
As I pause here, the thing that is impressed upon me most by you is the unwavering attention to authenticity I see it throughout your vistas and settings. Everything reeks of the time frame so much so that its consistency drops into the background – as it should. This also applies to the characters populating your old tale. Even down to the wenches and peasants! Then there is the undercurrent between the ‘convenience wedded’ lady and the ‘less than sure of his piety.’ templar. It is exquisite in its low key tete-a-tete, with her giving him the chance to move upon her ardor while eventually evolving into a brazen eye to eye challenge to he and his vows.
When King John gets to Rochester, death literally prows outside the door. It is here that I am extremely impressed with Paul Giamatti’s mad King. It is a diverse range of insanity and he lends this deposed King stunning depth. The composition of intent along with diplomatic smooth surfaces broken by iron fisted rages against any who would usurp his birthright is riveting to behold and some of the best work he or any actor has lent to a crazed monarch!
When he breaches the wall and takes the wounded as hostage against those fortified within the keep, his depth of brutality is exposed in all its sneering evil and the fate of said hostages is played out right in front of all eyes. Make no mistake, the gore and blood in this story is never far and not at all spared. It is the last nuance that drives the impact of the story home. When the defenders are down to the last and our weary templar Marshal, played flawlessly by James Purefoy, makes the Squire of Sir Albany swear to save a knife thrust for lady Isabel, your grim low has been achieved, and is right up there with many similar cinematic moments.
Even when the ending comes there is no uplift, there is no redemption, there is only survival for another day and perhaps some absolution along the way. It is fitting, it rings true and it is not happy, but somewhere inside you embrace the sliver of light the day brings and don’t think much beyond that. You aren’t an easy film to watch, but like your story itself it is hard fought and I take myself away from it glad to have spent the time with you, if for no other reason than to celebrate the great telling of a hard story! Touché director Jonathan English, well met sir.
Well met indeed,