– Summary –
Director : Kevin Macdonald
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim, Ned Dennehy, Dennis O’Hare, Dakin Mathews.
Approx Running Time : 114 Minutes
Synopsis: In the second century AD, a young soldier seeks to locate the whereabouts of a lost Roman Standard, the Eagle of the 9th Legion, lost under mysterious circumstances some twenty years earlier. Together with his British slave, the roman centurion travels north of Hadrian’s Wall into a harsh, unforgiving land – Scotland.
What we think : Rousing action/adventure film can’t overcome a dearth of character development and a wooden leading performance from Tatum, who seems to consider glowering a lot as “acting”. The scenery and the production values are first rate, and the story itself is quite exciting, but neither Tatum nor director Kevin Macdonald can overcome the deficit of character work within the script – the story fails to connect with a modern audience, and aside from a few attempts at forging friendship between sworn enemies, the film hangs on the success of the action; there’s not enough to counter the plodding, quest-style narrative and it’s lack of focus.
If you’re sitting there reading the synopsis of this film and wondering if it sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it should. The story of the 9th Roman Legion, 5000 men strong, who walked into Scotland in conquest and were never seen again, has been given the cinema treatment in an equally brutal manner in 2010’s Centurion, which we’ve reviewed here. While Centurion was set within the 9th Legion, and used that actual story as its backdrop, The Eagle is set some twenty years later, and uses the mystery as motivation for the story at hand. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of The Ninth, and directed by Oscar winning director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland), The Eagle is a brave attempt to try and bring to the screen a book which has become revered around the world as a classic of its genre – the book has also been made into a number of previous iterations on screen, namely two BBC productions, prior to this effort. Whether or not you think the film is a success, there’s no denying Macdonald’s apparent love of the book, for he’s given the film a gritty realism in both location and production value, with a handsomely suited cast and some solid, if unremarkable, leading performances.
In 120 AD, the 9th Roman Legion marched into what is now Scotland and were never seen again. Roman Emperor, Hadrian, ordered a wall be built between the North and South of Britain, effectively ending the reach of the Roman empire at that point. 20 Years later, the son of the commander of the 9th Legion, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) takes up his role as the new role of the garrison commander at an outpost near the wall, and becomes a hero after thwarting an attack by a horde of Celts, before being wounded and given an honorable discharge from the army. While recuperating at his uncle’s house (a wonderful Donald Sutherland) in Britain, Marcus saves a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) from being butchered in the local gladiator fights, and, after learning that there’s a chance the 9th Legions Eagle Standard (a golden eagle cast on top of a long pole, and usually carried into battle at the head of the legion) is still up in the far north, he and Esca head past Hadrian’s Wall to get it back. Esca, a Briton who hates the Romans for what they did to his family, has a life debt to repay to Marcus, and yet is resistant to Marcus’s drive to return the Eagle to Rome – he does, however, lead him to the Seal Tribe who hold the Eagle, in order to fulfill his debt and become a free man. Of course, you don’t just stroll up to a tribe of warriors and ask for their Eagle back; at least, not without a fight. The search quest quickly becomes a pursuit, as Marcus and Esca must outrun the lightning fast tribesmen and return the Eagle to Roman territory.
Up front, this is a far more engaging film than Centurion. That much should be made clear. Don’t think, however, that The Eagle is a better film, in as much as it remains as emotionally distant to a modern audience as Neill Marshall’s gory mess of a movie was. There’s something about period films that doesn’t work every time out, and I think it has to do with our acceptance of these characters in the context of our own, modern selves. The battle to overcome the fact that these guys are fighting with swords and spears is often a hindrance to the emotional core of the characters, because we’re separated from them by centuries of time. Even their code of conduct, their morals and ethics, their deities and beliefs are all now ancient history, and I think the distance of centuries prevents a real, genuine emotional bond with these characters. That’s not to say it can’t be done, because films like Ben Hur, Braveheart and Gladiator have proven that it can, it’s just that trying to make a modern action film set in these times is often fraught with danger when it comes to the emotion and reason for telling the story. I haven’t read Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel on which this film is based, although I have heard of the author and her Roman-era saga, of which this story is perhaps the most popular. So I come to this with a relatively clean slate of knowledge, aside from what I gleaned from Centurion earlier. The historical basis of the story is easily Googled, so at least the basis of the narrative is rooted in legitimate fact, which will always work in a films favor. Yet, the characters themselves, at least in the film, seem to be fairly generic, almost rote for the period, and I found myself desperately wishing for more.
Marcus Aquila is played by Channing Tatum, an actor I’ve yet to see do anything convincing aside from look concerned and glower at the camera. As the lead actor in this, he needed a depth of performance far more powerful than what Tatum is capable of. The character is a man harboring a 20 year grudge against the Celts for the loss of the 9th Legion and the taking of the Eagle, because his father was in that Legion. 20 years of burning desire to seek revenge – and all Tatum can muster is a half-assed angry look more appropriate to someone who’s had a fender-bender on the freeway. Admittedly, the character isn’t written that well, with Jeremy Brock’s screenplay leaving a great deal of character development on the floor. The balance between an emotional connection with the leading character seems to have been tipped in favor of the action, eschewing the core of Marcus’s beliefs in favor a more heroic, chest-out Arthurian Knight fable. Sure, there’s emotion behind Marcus’s desire to travel to Scotland and find the Eagle, but I didn’t connect with it, it wasn’t a tangible element to me. That’s not to say I didn’t accept this reasoning, it’s just that I don’t think it was as catalyzing as the filmmakers would have wanted. Channing Tatum’s wooden acting style doesn’t help matter either, since he’s seemingly incapable of more than about three different emotions across the film; that said, he does wield a sword well, and he handles the action moments of the film really well. If only I cared about his character.
Jamie Bell, whom has forever been trying to escape the enormous shadow cast by Billy Elliot, is given a fairly meaty role in Esca, and he does it well, even if the part seems trimmed down to counterpoint Marcus, instead of complement him. Esca’s a foil for Marcus’s Roman arrogance, and the script never allows Esca to become anything other than that. Bell tries hard to give pathos and history to the role, but it’s not enough. Donald Sutherland plays the now-familiar father-figure he’s made a name for in recent years, as Marcus’s British-based Uncle. It’s this films Yoda role, and Sutherland effortlessly lays the groundwork for the motives and emotion of Marcus’s quest to return the Eagle. Mark Strong has a nice extended cameo as a former centurion in the 9th Legion, with whom Marcus and Esca encounter along their journey, and it’s always great to see him in anything. Strong is a highly underrated actor, if you ask me, and is somebody I hold in high regard as a performer – a bit like Jason Isaacs before he went and got lazy doing Harry Potter. His battered Roman soldier, who’s been living as a Celt since the 9th Legion was attacked and slaughtered, is about as close to a truthfully emotional role in the entire film.
Kevin Macdonald’s direction is not bad, considering this is his first true action film. His camerawork, aided by Oscar-winning DOP Anthony Dod Mantle, gives the film an epic, gritty naturalness, the glorious Scottish highlands haven’t looked this good since Mel Gibson dressed in a kilt. The action sequences are dynamic, free-flowing and generally devoid of that rapid-cut shaky-cam stuff most directors seem to employ these days; the cast perform the majority of their own stunts, and you can tell. The story does sag a little during the “quest” sequences of the film, where it’s just Tatum and Bell on screen, and some of the pacing is a tad off when things get to the Seal Tribe’s world – there’s some kind of rave sequence which drags on for ages, and obscure characters come and go out of the film for no reason other than to sell the savagery of the tribesmen. Had this and several of the “chase” sequences been tightened a little, instead of plodding along for minutes at a time, I might have considered this to be a “breathless thriller” instead of a sodden trek.
The Eagle isn’t ever going to be a must-own or a cult classic in any sense, and I dare say the majority of folks who will watch it are Roman Era enthusiasts and Channing Tatum fans, but it does offer an alternative viewpoint to Centurion as far as portraying the period with modern panache. It’s an enjoyable romp, I guess, even though the going is often tough and the characters listless and underdeveloped. A pleasant enough time-waster with little memorable factors aside from the views of Scotland in glorious widescreen.
Have you seen The Eagle? Let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below!!