Petr Jákl’s Medieval (Jan Žižka) is a visually impressive if narratively underwhelming historical epic, showcasing one of the greatest military heroes in Czech history.
Jan Žižka is a Czech national hero, a military general who is said to have never lost a battle. It seems fitting, then, that he be dramatised in what is currently the most expensive production in the history of Czech cinema, Petr Jákl’s Medieval. It’s a historical – if a bit embellished – epic that borrows from the Game of Thrones playbook, with betrayals, backroom plotting and battles galore.
Bohemian Europe is in chaos following the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, with his successor King Wenceslaus (Karel Roden) facing treason at the hands of his Machiavellian half-brother King Sigismund (Matthew Goode). Military leader Jan Žižka (Ben Foster) is embroiled in their plotting when Wenceslaus’ advisor Lord Boresh (Michael Caine) orders him to kidnap the fiancé of Sigismund’s greatest ally Henry of Rosenberg (Til Schweiger), Lady Catherine (Sophie Lowe). But as Jan evades the formidable Torak (Roland Møller), who is tasked with bringing Catherine back to Sigismund, he must decide whether either side can be trusted.
Opening with a gravelly voiceover from Caine establishing the time period – Italy, 1402 –, Medieval needs to deliver quite a lot of exposition to get the ball rolling and we’re told ‘violence, tyranny, intrigue and power’ are the order of the day. As the film progresses, it’s a little difficult to keep up with who exactly is allied with who, with countless double crossing and backstabbing (often literally) as each side takes it in turn to ambush the other. Poor Catherine ends up being passed back and forth like a hot potato, and the intricacies of Jákl’s plot end up getting a little lost. But at its core, the film is fairly simple: a cunning usurper plotting against his weaker half-brother for the crown, whilst a righteous military man leads the people in a stand against this bitter power-struggle.
Whilst the film certainly delivers on the action, it’s the plot that weakens it. It repeatedly mentions God’s will and the power of prayer, but never allows its characters to properly discuss religion. It offers up a contentious relationship between two power-hungry brothers, but barely lets them share a scene together. Casting Matthew Goode as a haughty, conniving villain works so well on paper, but he’s underused and his character underdeveloped. The film also centres a prominent, legendary figure, but dilutes his most powerful moments with a tad too many supporting characters, played by a host of talented European, British and American actors. Medieval is a national story told through an international lens, and is trying to navigate the tricky landscape of historical biopics and give it flare. But ultimately, the film works best when the narrative is boiled down to showing just how good this guy was in battle.
Žižka was a very innovative and unorthodox military leader who remained undefeated even after having lost an eye. He’s portrayed as having an innate understanding of the nature of each individual conflict, playing them to his often imbalanced advantage every time. Foster’s Žižka is stoic, controlled and really handy with a sword, but never really given the emotional heft he (both character and actor) deserves. The film is trying desperately to emphasise the chemistry between Foster and Lowe, as well as the poignant scenes involving Žižka’s brother Jaroslav (William Moseley), but the emotional moments are consistently trounced by the might of the sword. The action is where Medieval really comes into its own, and the rest feels like padding to an already too-long film.
Jákl and cinematographer Jesper Tøffner have crafted a really impressive, visually stunning film. It really feels authentic, practical and, yes, expensive, becoming as much an auditory assault on the senses as it is a visual treat. Jákl, Tøffner and foley artist Dominyka Adomaityte’s battle scenes dominate the film, with the clanging of swords, the clacking of hooves and the yells and grunts of brutal hand to hand combat showcased through intense, hand-held camera work from smack dab in the middle of the action. It’s well choreographed and impressively showcased, relentless and violent, and really emphasises this as a time where the politics were soaked in blood and mud.
Narratively convoluted but visually impressive, Medieval delivers on the action needed when telling the story of a Czech hero renowned for his military prowess and desire to fight for honour, faith and justice. Jákl even poignantly dedicates the film to ‘all those who fight for freedom’ around the world. It’s a rich, lavish production that immerses the audience in the dirt, the fire and the bloody battles, but unfortunately misses the mark with its emotional arc. It maybe takes some liberties with historical accuracy – the lion attack feels a little contrived and a little ridiculous – but will entertain those looking for the more brutal side of history, rather than those who watched Game of Thrones for the talky bits.
Medieval will be releasing in UK cinemas, on digital, and on demand from 28th October, 2022.