Medieval review – a Bohemian rhapsody of merry bruisers and brutal bloodshed

The costliest Czech film of all time features epic battles, royal conspiracies, hungry lions –and Michael Caine in a neckruff

If you had to put money on who would be cast for a film about 15th-century Czech warrior hero Jan Žižka, then Ben Foster, Matthew Goode, Til Schweiger and Sir Michael of Caine would probably not be top of the list. But that is the impressive ensemble kitted out in ermines and armour by director Petr Jákl for this brutal, byzantine but strangely uninvolving historical actioner set in medieval Bohemia – apparently the most expensive Czech production ever.

Foster plays Žižka, a seasoned mercenary who with his merry band of bruisers is first seen protecting Lord Boresh (Caine) from a riverside ambush. Boresh is neckruff-deep in court intrigues that make the Tory party look like pussycats: Wenceslas IV (Karel Roden) is due in Rome to be crowned Holy Emperor, but his brother Sigismund (Goode) is eyeing up the throne. So Boresh commissions Žižka to kidnap Katherine (Sophie Lowe), the fiancee of Sigismund co-conspirator Henry Rosenberg (Schweiger), to get everyone in line; she is the niece of the king of France, the period’s European superpower.

Keeping track of all this is like trying to get your head around one of those endlessly proliferating aristocratic family trees, with a convoluted setup also frontloading the film with unnecessary puff about twin papacies. But it boils down to something quite simple: a tug-of-war over Katherine between Žižka and his peasant rebels, and the heavies sent by Sigismund and Rosenberg to recover her. However, Jákl neglects the basics that would have us riding in step, namely distinct and persuasive characterisation for Žižka, played with a strange dour reticence by the normally incendiary Foster.

Contemporary echoes – including the kind of feminist revisionism last seen in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel – don’t ring as resoundingly as they should. Just as well that Medieval offers good ye olde visuals and makes a hell of a racket during the battle sequences, especially one corking set piece in which Žižka, a military innovator, holds off his enemies with a makeshift proto-tank. And if it can’t muster much historical insight, this Bohemian foray rhapsodises violence all too effectively: mace-smitings, nose-bitings, even a lion crunching someone’s head like a boiled sweet.

• Medieval is released in cinemas and on digital platforms on 28 October.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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