That Phoney King of England
(Ironclad, Jonathan English, UK, 2011, 121 mins)
Pity the poor ducks, assuming they exist, campaigning for the rehabilitation of King John. Try as they might, pamphleting homes with a glossy reproduction of Magna Carta, headed with the slogan “he could have had his hand severed rather than sign but didn’t”, arranging marches in which placards adorned with his face are waved to chants of “God save the King!” and reediting no less than one hundred Robin Hood movies to reduce his villainy, filmmakers still reach for John as easy shorthand for monarchical hubris.
Ironclad brings the King’s perfidiousness and cowardice to a whole new audience. As channelled via the scowling face of Paul Giamatti, he’s a weasel sired, monstrous psychotic, whose resolute, not to mention self-interested belief in the divine right of Kings, makes the landmark charter he’s forced to sign little more than a page long libel. It’s little wonder that having being bullied into putting his autograph onto what you and I might think of as landmark legislation, he looks miserable – almost as miserable as Tony Blair felt when The Human Rights Act received royal assent.
John, we learn, has “piss for blood”, like a poor prototype of HR Giger’s Alien, is “a tedious little man” and that no act of cruelty or depravity is beyond him. Perhaps conscious that this sometimes snivelling, sometimes bellowing, always duplicitous shit is in danger of becoming a bearded Aunt Sally, director Jonathan English, whose selection might be seen as an act of nominative determinism, inserts a dimension adding scene.
John appears to walk on water, a neat symbolic aside, and justifies his cruelty as the guarantor of absolute power with an anecdote about sadistic Dad Henry II employing similar methods to ensure that, in Bagehotian terms, daylight never shone upon magic. You can credit the filmmakers for trying to humanise him with this bit of biographical shading but by then it’s too late; we hate John and we hope that James Purefoy’s Knight Templar will do awful things to his genitals with the business end of his iron phallus.
Compare and contrast this portrayal of the crown with recent Oscar winner The King’s Speech in which appeasement poster boy and closet anti-Semite George VI was martyred before our very eyes. It’s extraordinary that filmmakers are more deferential toward royalty the closer you get to the sitting monarch. Extraordinary, because if Monarchy was starting to look like an anachronism in the 13th Century, its power proving to be a serious threat to liberty, the deference still bestowed upon it in the 21st is nothing short of incredible.
Purefoy’s cabal have worst problems than the Crown, however, namely that God is, as usual, on the wrong side. Flanked by an army of easily pulped heads and soft torsos, the King’s assault on Rochester Castle, stronghold of the rebellion, forms the bulk of Ironclad’s bloody action. English wastes no time in showing the dog the rabbit, moving from the dank ale houses of south east England, at a time when you could still enjoy a bare breasted whore for two pennies, and the candle company still had a monopoly on the nation’s interior lighting, to the castle siege and a series of mindless slaughters.
English has imbued proceedings with a gratifying brutality; a grubby, washed out, theatre of nastiness, free of any intrusive modern day sanitisation. Ever so often the fingerprints of computer animators can be made out on freshly cut stumps, cleaved heads and worse, but there’s no denying the visceral thrill that’s brought to bear on each swipe, crunch and clink.
Perhaps concerned this ultraviolence may alienate breast brandishing patrons, and driven by the need to crowbar something of a character arc into what might have been scene after scene of men looking pensive while they wait to be killed, English uses the heightened sensibilities of the trapped and hungry castle dwellers to charge the relationship between Purefoy’s chastised knight and Kate Mara’s Lady Isabel. The handling of this relationship isn’t nearly as assured as the battle scenes, however, their slow crawl toward adultery, arguably an unlikely move for a man preoccupied with Christian doctrine, smacking of demographic distraction rather than organic story telling.
An intrusive romance aside, Ironclad succeeds in boiling up bloodlust and masturbating your inner-teenage boy. Needless to say it’s bunk as a piece of history, spoken in the modern vernacular with just the occasional French or Latin word dropped in to remind you which century it’s supposed to be, and characterisation has been substituted for cannon fodder but it’s earnest, raw entertainment that fulfils its modest ambitions.