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Ye Magnificent Seven
on 10 March 2012
Barely getting a theatrical release, Jonathan English's Ironclad shows a lot more ambition than the average independent British film by avoiding the usual debut feature route - mockney gangsters, housing estate miserablism or aimless middle class angst - for a blood and guts tale about the siege of Rochester Castle during the First Barons' War in 1215 when King John attempted to regain the powers he'd ceded with the Magna Carta by killing the barons who forced him to sign it. Not that this is a history lesson. Budgetary limitations see the number of defenders reduced from 100 to 20 against a small army of mercenaries: we're not talking Helms Deep here (something underlined by the casting of Mackenzie Crook rather than Orlando Bloom as the defenders' master bowman), more a medieval Rorke's Drift but with a lot fewer Zulus. There's the expected very loose approach to the facts when they threaten to get in the way of the swordplay, even down to the final fate of the defenders, but then this is the kind of film where a bad guy is clubbed to death with a severed arm just in case you have any lingering doubts where the filmmakers are coming from. What we have is a very bloody Ye Olde Magnificent Seven, as Brian Cox's rebel baron and James Purefoy's tormented Templar recruit a ragbag group of defenders (Jason Flemyng and The Man with No Neck Jamie Foreman among them) to hold out at Derek Jacobi's castle against Vladimir Kulich's Danish mercenaries until French reinforcements can arrive - which may be never.
Unfortunately, while it goes for the throat with a vengeance, the fight scenes tend to all be a bit samey, with much hacking and chopping in half rendered in almost interchangeable shakeycam while the tactics are pretty much by rote until the spectacularly destructive climax (one of the few moments drawn directly from history). The plot developments are predictable too, as Purefoy is tempted by Kate Mara's lady of the castle who's trapped by her own loveless marriage vows while none of the other members of his rapidly depleting band of brothers don't get enough in the way of characterisation for us to care about their fate. Still, Paul Giametti is for the most part a great villain as the pissed off King John, though he's better when simmering with resentment than exploding with rage.
Unfortunately the film's visuals are let down a bit by the clichéd dreary cinematography: obviously post-Magna Carta England was in such dire straits that its people couldn't afford full colour and had to make do with that desaturated stuff that film school students seem to think is visual shorthand for realism. It's not helped by the flat digital photography that robs many scenes of depth of field either. Yet despite its limitations and a feeling of running out of steam a bit in the last third, it's definitely a few chops above the likes of straight-to-video medieval stuff like Barbarossa: Siege Lord, Purefoy makes a very impressive lead and the Americans in the cast manage to hide their accents very well. Perhaps more of a post-pub movie than the classic adventure it could have been, but a pretty fair try all the same.
While the US release has a director's commentary as the sole extra, the UK Blu-ray from Warners offers only some 34 minutes of on-location interviews with the cast and crew to compliment its underwhelming 2.35:1 widescreen transfer.