Eye For Film >> Movies >> Solomon Kane (2009) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jeff Robson
As there seems to be an early Eighties revival going on at the moment – Filofaxes, shoulder pads, Falklands disputes, England being a bit rubbish at rugby – what better time to bid a hearty welcome to a genre once thought extinct: the British sword and sorcery epic?
If you’ve ever spent a bank holiday afternoon lolling in front of Krull or Hawk The Slayer you’ll recognise Solomon Kane immediately; deeply silly in many ways but played very straight and with enough visual flair and interesting ideas to suggest a cult classic in the making. More to the point, it offers very few concessions to the American market, either in its premise or its narrative development.
This is ironic, since its sword-wielding Puritan avenger hero was originally the work of an American writer, Robert E Howard, who also created the pulp icon Conan The Barbarian. However, writer/director Bassett has eschewed the original source material (short stories published in the hugely popular and somewhat risqué 1920s magazine Weird Tales) for an origin tale that owes more to the Hammer horrors at their best (particularly the under-rated Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter) and even has a few nods to Michael Reeves’ 1968 classic Witchfinder General.
It opens in conventional enough blockbuster fashion; the year is 1600 and an impressively CGI-rendered Moorish palace is being comprehensively trashed by Kane (James Purefoy), a very unlovable rogue, and his pirate fleet. Driven on by a lust for violence and a greed for treasure, he leads his crew to the heart of the palace – where he encounters the Devil’s Reaper, no less.
This shape-shifting uber-badass informs him that due to his extreme evil, his soul is forfeit and it’s payback time. Kane escapes by throwing himself out of a window, leaving his men to perish. The scene then shifts to an English monastery one year later, where Kane is now living in penance, determined never to raise a weapon in anger again.
Basset pulls off a real cinematic coup here, transporting the viewer instantly from a rich red and gold-hued fantasyscape to a bleak, wintry setting that wouldn’t look out of place in an Ingmar Bergman glumfest. It’s unsettling and effective, immediately giving notice that the film has a genuinely talented director in charge – and might have a few more surprises in store.
Purefoy works a similarly impressive transformation, from tousle-haired Byronic anti-hero to a recognisably flawed human being, shrivelled and haunted by his experience. The new Kane, dressed in rags and sporting a set of religious tattoos to rival De Niro in Cape Fear, is an unsettling presence to the monks and he’s eventually ‘encouraged’ to go forth on a pilgrimage.
He encounters a lawless England ravaged by plague, but refuses to lift his hand when attacked by brigands. He is rescued by William Crowthorn (Pete Postlethwaite), a Puritan journeying to the coast with his family, where they hope to take passage to the New World.
Kane travels with them, telling his troubled backstory from childhood to his new surrogate father along the way. Bassett takes his time here, once again refusing to sacrifice character development for attention-grabbing set pieces.
But fans of the genre will by now be reasonably confident that there’ll come a time when the forces of darkness rile Our Sol so much that he’ll start getting post-medieval on their collective asses. And lo, it comes to pass. In a development which seems to have unaccountably bypassed most 17th Century historians, the West Country has been taken over by Malachi, a priest-turned-sorcerer who’s sending an army of demonically-possessed skinheads forth to enslave the populace.
They ambush Crowthorn’s camp, carrying off his daughter Meredith (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and a new tragedy prompts Solomon to realise that God’s plan is for him to grab a big hat and a long cloak, shove as much weaponry into his belt as it can take and start fighting fire with fire.
His quest to rescue Meredith and confront Malachi and his chief enforcer, a mute giant with mask by Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and armour by Darth Vader, certainly offer all you’d want in the way of showdowns and swordfights. But the backdrop is a believably impoverished and rain-swept rural landscape. And there’s a willingness to question Solomon’s morality and motives in his obsessive hunt for the beautiful and innocent young Meredith that stop this being just another hack-and-slay box ticker.
The climax goes on a bit too long and some of the dialogue should have speech balloons around it. But Bassett (whose WWI horror debut Deathwatch signalled an undoubted talent in the making) proves equally adept at orchestrating mayhem, creating a striking image (trapped spectres sucking Solomon’s men into mirrors, masked plague doctors watching as a baby’s body is burnt) and developing his characters into people you actually care about.
He’s helped immensely by Purefoy (Mark Antony in HBO’s blood and bonkfest Rome and a reliable supporting turn in films ranging from A Knight’s Tale to Resident Evil), Postlethwaite and a remarkably classy cast filling in the minor roles. Mackenzie Crook is good value as ever as a tormented priest and there’s a ‘can you guess who it is’ turn from a Very Famous Actor given the CGI anti-ageing treatment as Kane’s unloving dad.
If this kind of thing isn’t your cup of tea, you won’t be converted. But like the big daddy of all fantasy epics, Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings, Solomon Kane has a respect for its source material and a willingness to balance its money shots with proper story-telling that transcend its genre limitations. Let’s hope the makers remember its strengths when and if sequel time comes around. And let’s hope Purefoy isn’t tempted by anodyne romcoms and gormless action thrillers in the meantime. His performance here shows he could obviously handle bigger (and better) things.Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2010