The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Jonathan English
Length 121 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ***-------
Filmmaking: 1  Personal enjoyment: 2

Photo from the article Trailer.

After years of bloody civil war, King John (Paul Giamatti) is forced by his feisty barons into signing the Magna Carta. The end? Apparently not. Regally miffed, he stocks up on Danish mercenaries, gains the blessing of the Pope, and sets about hunting down his fellow signatories to reap revenge. Tongues are cut out, men are hanged, and pieces of paper are stuffed in the mouths of bloody corpses. The only hope seems to lie with a gouty old Baron (Brian Cox) and his band of roughly assembled warriors, including a Knight’s Templar (James Purefoy) so tormented by something or other that he forgets to say what, and a squire who looks like Frodo Baggins. They hole up in Derek Jacobi’s Rochester Castle to await the onslaught of King John’s army - by which they are, inevitably, vastly outnumbered.

Part of the ineffable badness of this film is due to its attempts to be like so many other films. Exhibit one: the pointless stylised CGI gore clashes with the “realism” of its style in other places - and for what? To make it look a little like 300 (2007). Exhibit two: a Braveheart (1995) style execution starts off suitably ghastly, but ends in a moment of laugh out loud daftness that instead convinces as slapstick. Exhibit three: the clear influence of The Seven Samurai (1954), rather than lending the film unwarranted status, in fact makes painfully clear its limitations. Yes, here too a band of warriors is gathered, but, rather than picking them up along the journey, they find all of them (all of them) in a town the size of Piddlington on Sea. This might well be to do with narrative economy, but I fear it is more to do with economy economy: the same cheapness which has the camera pointed constantly at the sun to disguise the period, never goes to a wide shot to avoid the car park, and boasts computer effects apparently carried out on a ZX81.

Exhibit four: the fucking acting. I hate to use profanity in criticism; it is lazy writing, laddish posturing, suggestive of a wrongheaded need to shock, but… the fucking acting. The cast on paper looks great. Cox is always solid, Giamatti was excellent in Sideways (2004), Jacobi is a good bet, there’s the reliable Dance, even James Purefoy did a very good turn in Rome not so long ago. But everyone here is, unfortunately, almost without exception awful. They’re not helped by dialogue that seems so grammatically poor as to be confusing to both actors and characters. Another mitigating circumstance might be the charactersation, which changes according to the necessity of the story or genre cliché. Poor Purefoy is a Templar whose vow of chastity is so important to him it takes three whole glances from Lady Isabel (Kate Mara) before she’s touching his sword and asking, “is this the way I hold it?” I am serious. Her insistence here on trying to get into his breeches, and thereby shaking the foundation of the warrior code of the best soldier they have, has nothing to do with her “character”, who is there simply to spout guff about love whenever deemed appropriate.

The prize, however, has to go to Giametti as King John, a performance far more gruesome than the gore - so bad, in fact, that I will need almost all of the Alternate Take to dissect it, or better still to hang, draw and quarter it.

This review was published on August 03, 2011.

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