2022, R, 125 min. Directed by Petr Jákl. Starring Ben Foster, Michael Caine, Sophie Lowe, Matthew Goode, Til Schweiger, Karel Roden, Roland Møller.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Sept. 9, 2022
One can assume any film with a theatrical release is doing something right in the year 2022. Whereas a movie like Medieval might scarcely register beyond your local Redbox in years past, film distributors have tightened their belts since movie theatres reopened. This suggests that there’s more to a movie like Medieval than initially meets the eye, and curious moviegoers will be rewarded this weekend with one of the better swords-and-scandals takes on Middle Ages politics in recent history.
Medieval captures the life of Jan Žižka (Foster), a Bohemian military leader who historians claim never lost a battle. When Žižka and his men are hired by Lord Boreš (Caine) to kidnap the niece of the King of France (Lowe, deserving of much more work following Blow the Man Down), it sparks a bloody battle for control of the Catholic church. Caught between two monarchs and the rebellious forces gathering in the countryside, Žižka must face his mentor (Møller) on the battlefield or watch the kingdom around him crumble.
As the film unfolds, much is made of political alliances and claims to the throne in Rome, but these elements of statecraft are a mere garnish on the violent battlefield drama that is Medieval. The film opens with an impressive skirmish – Žižka and his men ambush an ambush, pushing their enemies’ horses into a river and committing a frankly delightful number of underwater stabbings – and only becomes more violent as the rulers become more desperate. This is a film about the atrocities performed in the name of a religious crusade; if you feel that other medieval movies are too skimpy with impalements, I’ve got great news for you.
Leading the charge is an actor who has long deserved a film of this scope. In his best roles – movies like Hell or High Water and Leave No Trace – Ben Foster offers audiences a blend of violence and vulnerability that has come to define the modern Hollywood warrior. But his naturalistic approach as an actor makes him an odd choice for Medieval. In a film populated with grizzled character actors like Til Schweiger and Karel Roden, Foster is a decidedly contemporary screen presence. The robust Czech cast and period detailing sometimes make Medieval feel caught between the worlds of national cinema and direct-to-video actioner, and Foster never entirely belongs to either setting.
When Medieval focuses on swordplay and stagecraft, the film belongs in the mix alongside Black Death and Outlaw King as overlooked period action titles of varying self-importance. Its brutality is often refreshing, and director Petr Jákl and cinematographer Jesper Tøffner balance sweeping aerial shots with chaotic and brutal fight sequences – Foster’s character fights with a maul, and Medieval does not skimp on the facial deconstructions. But the film also works to mythologize Jan Žižka – already a historical Czech icon – with both a love story and a political rebirth, and Medieval can feel a bit bloated when these narratives are vying for screen time.
But even if Medieval occasionally succumbs to its worst biopic influences, it’s still a delightfully confident work from a filmmaking team that knows its way around a sword. In the film’s climax, a character pauses outside a castle door, flinging it open to reveal a chaotic battle raging along the keep’s walls. It’s the kind of shot many big-budget franchises would kill to execute; in Medieval, it’s just one of several top-notch fight sequences. If the current downturn in Hollywood means more films like Medieval will slip into multiplexes unchallenged, well, let’s count our blessings where we find them.