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One can’t watch a film like “Medieval” without imagining yourself in a fantastic position. No, you wouldn’t want to be a character in the movie, that’s for sure; they live lives of constant violence, exploitation and conspiracy. But to be one of the Foley artists working on a film with this many brutal battles — clanking on armor, scraping on chain mail, rustling through fresh leaves — that sounds like a delightful time.
“Medieval” struggles as a work of historical fiction, but when the action mounts, it’s immersive and exciting. Ben Foster stars as real-life soldier and strategist Jan Žižka, a Czech national hero who is said to have never lost a battle. The film takes place in Žižka’s relatively early days, when he was working as a mercenary for Lord Boreš (Michael Caine), who is trying to secure the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor for King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia (Karl Roden, “The Racer”), who is, in turn, trying to fend off the machinations of his scheming brother King Sigismund (Matthew Goode), who wants to steal the throne for himself with the support of Lord Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), who is about to marry Lady Catherine (Sophie Lowe, “Blow the Man Down”), who seems rather nice actually.
If that seemed like an unnecessarily tedious rabbit hole for the second paragraph in a film review about an action movie, this critic has done his job.
“Medieval” starts out with a riveting action sequence filled with violence and viscera, but as soon as the noblemen start speaking, the film derails into talky tedium. There’s a lot of historical information to keep track of — there are two popes these days, one in France and one in Rome, who are terribly important even though we never see them, and that’s just to start with — and it all gets in the way of telling a story about Žižka, who is a far more striking figure and interesting character than any of the talking heads in the castle.
Žižka’s story finally picks up with he’s ordered to kidnap Lady Catherine, in order to force Lord Rosenberg to support King Wenceslas. After a daring heist in the middle of a cathedral, the plan goes south almost immediately. Rosenberg turns to Sigismund for assistance, Sigismund turns to his own mercenary Torak (Roland Møller, “Blood Red Sky”) to steal her from Žižka, and before you know it, Torak has killed Žižka’s nephew and sent our hero and his band of loyal soldiers on the run into the forests and caves of Bohemia.
All you really need to know to follow “Medieval” is that Jan Žižka is a noble mercenary who takes an ignoble job for what he thinks are noble reasons, but gradually realizes he’s made a horrible mistake and has to right his wrongs. Writer-director Petr Jákl (best known in the US as an actor in films like “Alien vs. Predator”) seems unusually eager to complicate Žižka’s wholly satisfying heroic journey, but when he worries less about citing historical events and more about making an action movie, “Medieval” is impressive.
Cinematographer Jesper Tøffner does an exceptional job of making battles seem epic, even when they’re just brutal bludgeonings in a forest. Those forests are dense and layered, the characters within them filthy and worn. The swing of a sword and the slice of a knife — all the fighting in “Medieval” is thrillingly violent. It would seem larger than life if it wasn’t so intimate.
“Medieval” has been called the most expensive Czech movie in history, and the money is on the screen. Some of the larger battles still feel caged in, to the extent that one gets the serious impression that, with even more money and resources, Jákl’s film might have truly exploded with grandeur.
Then again, “Medieval” is one of those action movies that excels at depicting violence while simultaneously claiming that violence is bad, actually. Žižka begins every conflict praying for forgiveness for what he is about to do, and ends every slaying by planting seeds under the corpses of his enemies. It goes a long way toward painting Žižka as a noble hero, despite the constant bloodshed, but it doesn’t entirely convince us that the filmmakers oppose all violence. On some level, they clearly think it’s cool.
One might think that Ben Foster would carry the film, since he’s one of the most interesting actors of his generation, but his role is surprisingly terse and straightforward for much of “Medieval.” He’s battle-hardened but can whip out a thin, knowing smile when the occasion calls for it. And although he has some fraught interactions with Lady Catherine, a noblewoman who is encountering real hardship for the first time and gradually realizing the people of Bohemia are nobler than the nobles, much of Foster’s screen time is spent being taciturn and kicking ass. He’s great at both of those things, but he’s capable of so much more.
Instead of a rich character study of Žižka, “Medieval” spends a rather long and dull amount of time with royals in their castles, manipulating each other to gain control of a throne that really doesn’t matter nearly as much to us as the soldiers and peasants on the ground, fighting for their lives against government-sanctioned tyranny. When “Medieval” keeps its attention focused on characters with relatable emotional journeys, it is an exciting work of historical fiction that makes its story come alive. But that’s not all of the film, and the dreary parts have an annoying tendency to siphon away our investment just when we need it most.
“Medieval” opens in U.S. theaters Sept. 9 via The Avenue.