Based on historical fact with a lot of cheeky amendments, this is an entertaining piece of historical hokum.
The year is 1215, shortly after King John (Giamatti) has been forced to sign the Magna Carta – the document that was to ensure the freedom of men (not women) and form the basis of common law in England . Here endeth the history lesson. Furious at the whole business, John raises a mercenary army of Danes in Viking style costumes and goes on the rampage to get his full power back and destroy that wretched sheet of parchment. Opposing him are a group of democratically minded rebels, who make a last stand for freedom against wicked John by taking over Rochester Castle from it’s owner, Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi), where John’s army holds them to siege. The rebels are led by Baron Albany (Cox), who is assisted by a Templar Knight, Thomas (Purefoy), a veteran of the crusades, who is emotionally scarred by the atrocities he has been part of.
The film has a nice sense of the grubby texture of what life must have been in the 13th century and the film makers have certainly done their research on mediaeval battle engines and techniques. Director English puts a lot of effort into making the battle scenes different and varied but there are so many of them that it does become a bit of a challenge, as there are scenes of fisticuffs and other forms of fighting every five minutes. The film is very violent but these were obviously violent times and some of the very graphic scenes, such as a man having his tongue cut out and others having their hands and feet lopped off with an axe are quite hard to stomach. And I do require an absolute assurance that no pigs were harmed in the making of this movie!
Purefoy is the original strong and silent knight, the warrior monk. His role involves a lot of scowling and looking tortured. Isobel (Mara), young wife of the ageing de Cornhill, is a most annoying character. From the moment we meet her with her much older husband and see the way she’s making eyes at Thomas, we immediately know his vow of celibacy isn’t going to last for much longer. This irritatingly vampy lady is not to be turned from her objective. Jacobi, taking a holiday from the classics, looks more than a touch bewildered by the whole proceedings.
Cox though is terrific fun, roaring through the film with great energy and really grabbing the audience’s interest. He also has some neat lines, as in his dismissive description of John – “what a tedious little man”. In fact when there’s not a battle going on, the script has some nice touches of witty writing. Albany ‘s small band of scruffy soldiers, which includes Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook, is also engaging, while Giamatti makes a brave stab at an English accent and appears to be having fun as the villainous King John, particularly when he is having a petulant hissy fit.
Review by Carol Allen