The year is AD140 and Britain is part of the Roman Empire. Sent there on his first command, young Centurion, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), has a reason to be in the frontier country, as his father was the eagle standard bearer of the fabled Ninth Legion, who, twenty years previously, were lost in the northern lands of Caledonia, and all who served thought to have perished and the eagle, pride of the legion, stolen.
Marcus longs to regain his family’s lost honour by making a name for himself, but while defending his fort from attack by the Celts, he is wounded and honourably discharged from the army. Sent to his uncle’s estates to recuperate, Marcus feels lost and helpless to ever repair his family’s name, until one day he hears rumours that the eagle has once again been sighted far beyond Hadrian’s Wall.
Taking his British slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), whom he saved from death in the gladiator ring, he sets off to recover the lost standard. While many believe no Roman can survive beyond the wall, Marcus must also watch out for a danger closer to home, as Esca is the son of a tribal chieftain murdered by Romans, and hates Rome with a burning passion.
Treading similar historical ground to last years vastly underrated Centurion, this is the set-up for Kevin Macdonald’s latest film, an adaptation of the 1954 Rosemary Sutcliff novel, The Eagle Of The Ninth. Pretty much standard reading for all children since publication, it is a classic adventure story about two adversaries uniting while on a quest to regain lost honour.
To be honest, the story’s been ripe for adaptation for many a year, so when I heard it was being made, and by Kevin Macdonald, I was excited. Was I right to be? Well, yes and no. The film does many things right, but sadly, also makes many missteps along the way, which ultimately curtail what should have been a breathless adventure story with Romans and Celts, and who doesn’t love them?
First off, the performances from the leads are very good, and it is through no fault of theirs that the film fails to satisfy. I must admit I was a tad nervous with the thought of Channing Tatum in the lead role, but he carries the film admirably. Not only does he have an impressive physical presence, which makes you genuinely believe he is a honed military man, but he also conveys the burning sense of pride that Marcus has, and after crossing the wall he portrays a man out of his comfort zone extremely well.
Jamie Bell also puts in a mature performance as the British slave honour bound to help Marcus, while also despising him and everything Rome stands for. There is a scene where the two discuss what the eagle means, which is probably the most effective in the movie, with Esca neatly turning Marcus’ impassioned speech about the righteousness of Rome on its head. It’s not subtle, but conveys the point the filmmakers are trying to make about American imperialism far better than the American actors as Romans which is utilised.
While I can understand why they did that, and have no problem with American accents, it just strikes me as just a touch heavy-handed. The chemistry between the two leads is generally solid, with the friendship and tension apparent in equal measure, although there are a couple of scenes where it threatens to go a bit Brokeback, and you suddenly understand the lack of women in the film.
However, not all of the casting pays off in quite the same way as the leads, with Donald Sutherland seemingly misplaced as the uncle. He is only in the film for a brief period, and what should be an important role seems redundant to the narrative, and sadly, a waste of the man’s talents.
Equally, the main threat to our heroes in the film is the prince of the Seal people, a Celtic tribe more in keeping with Aztecs than Britons. Painted all over in woad and dressed in flamboyant headgear, it was not until the very end when his paint is washed off that I recognised the prince to be none other than the brilliant Tahar Rahim from A Prophet.
Caking one of the most promising talents to emerge over the last few years in mud and making him unrecognisable probably wasn’t the smartest move, nor was reducing his role to mainly running about.
While I appreciate they were in the original novel, the Seal people ultimately feel a little silly, and with the rest of the film’s admirable adherence to historical accuracy, I just wish they could have adapted them in a more compelling and threatening way.
This dichotomy between things to admire in the film and things to despair of continues in the action. An early action sequence is one of the most stunning and visceral set pieces I’ve seen in a few years. Following a repulsed attack on the fort, the Celts drag out captured Romans and begin to behead them. Not one to sit idly by, Marcus leads his men out to set them free.
The battle is initially shot wide, but when the Romans go into their famous Testudo formation, the action gets close up. It is an incredibly intense sequence and so well shot and edited that I felt like applauding. It is the equal of any battle scene featuring Romans I have ever seen (including Gladiator) and clearly shows that Macdonald has a talent for this sort of thing, which makes his apparent ineptness during other action scenes baffling.
While his use of close-up handheld worked superbly in the above context, his continued use of it for other fights is confusing and messy, and robs what should be a personal and effective last battle scene of any coherence, narrative and ultimately power. I should have been caring about what was happening to the individual characters, but instead I was just trying to work out what the hell was going on.
Ultimately The Eagle is a somewhat of a missed opportunity, a boy’s own adventure which isn’t quite as adventurous as it should be, and it failed to really win me over. It opens strongly, but loses it momentum during the two main leads’ wanderings around a rainy Scotland, and never quite gets it back with a late chase narrative.
It also fails to give the film a true threat to really bind Marcus and Esca together beyond their quest, and the changed ending (from the book) seems a bit too neatly wrapped up and almost like the set-up to a Roman buddy movie. However, it is an entertaining picture with some superb moments, but unfortunately, it does punch just a little below its weight.
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