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Stars: Paul Giamatti, James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Kate Mara, Aneurin Bernard, Jamie Foreman, Derek Jacobi, Mackenzie Crook, Charles Dance, Jason Flemyng, Vladimir Kulich, Bree Condon

Director: Jonathan English

This account of the siege of Rochester Castle in 1215 quite quickly develops into a sort of medieval Magnificent Seven, though none the worse for that.

Seething over his enforced signing of the Magna Carta, the vengeful King John (Giamatti) has killed off all the co-signing nobles save one. The last baron standing, de Albany (Cox), knows that if John is not stopped, he will lay waste to all England with his tyrannical rule, with the help of an army of Danish warriors.

Assembling an entourage consisting of his squire (Bernard), a knight templar (Purefoy), only survivor of one of John's previous atrocities, a petty thief (Foreman), an archer (Crook), a burly farmer (Steffan Rhodri) and a womanising mercenary (Fletcher) and with the connivance of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dance), the baron rides to Rochester where, after his men dispatch an advance party of Danes, he claims the castle from its owner (Jacobi) and prepares to hold against John's hordes with an 'army' of 20 men, pending the hoped-for arrival of a French force.

John soon arrives and a months-long siege ensues. Initial successes for the defenders, such as the destruction of a siege tower, are followed by starvation, as John's well-fed army sits it out.

Vivid and imaginative, especially when a herd of pigs is employed in a scheme to blow up the castle's keep, the film, a considerable improvement on English's two previous efforts as director, has lots of justifiably fierce and bloodcurdling action, and the dialogue isn't bad either. 'Have you ever killed a man?' asks the knight of the squire. 'It is not a noble thing.' 'Not even when it is for freedom?' asks the squire. Replies the knight: 'Not even when it is for God.'

Only the scenes between the knight and the castle owner's young bride (Mara) are dreary and, though necessary to the plot, slow things up at inappropriate moments. On the acting front, Giamatti steals the show as a ranting King John, with a good English accent, apart from an inability to cope with 'a's, as in 'castle'. Mara's accent is better, but her performance far less colourful.

David Quinlan

UK 2011. UK Distributor: Warner Brothers. Colour by deluxe.
121 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 1, Violence/Horror 3, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 27 Feb 2011