Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Eagle

2011. Dir: Kevin MacDonald. Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong and Tahar Rahim. ●●○○○

As I begin to write this I'm listening to an interview with The Eagle director Kevin MacDonald on BBC Radio 4. He has talked about the themes of honour and fear of unknown cultures and consequent mistrust, he speaks about the necessary homoeroticism in Roman era film-making and the parallels between the Empire and modern geopolitical realities. All of which sounds fascinating however casting my mind back to the movie I saw just a few days ago I can't remember any of that which indicates how much I feel this production missed it's mark.

Channing Tatum (not bad - but I still believe his future is in comedy) is Marcus Aquila, the newly appointed Centurion of a Roman outpost in Briton, and the son of the commander Falvius Aquilla who twenty years earlier had disappeared with the Ninth Legion (as well as the titular golden eagle standard) in the wilds of Scotland embarassing the Emperor Hadrian and leading directly to the building of the wall in Northern Briton. After a brutal and heroic opening battle against a marauding druid Tatum is invalided out with honours and left in the care of his uncle Donald Sutherland where he saves the life of slave Esca (Jamie Bell). Before long the odd couple of Tatum and Bell are off on a quest to recapture the Eagle from the Seal People, partly led by Tahar Rahim as the Seal Prince.

Based on Rosemary Sutcliffe's 1954 childrens novel "The Eagle of the Ninth" (it's inexplicable lost part of it's title) you can see how the boy's own battle scenes - including a fantastic "Form a Testudo" moment - and the cross cultural friendship that develops between the leads would appeal to a 12 year old, unfortunatley that's not enough to fill an entire movie. The endless wandering through the wilds of Scotland (whilst forming a lovely visitors guide to the Highlands as filmed by Anthony Dod Mantle) seems to drag unnecessarily with the politics behind Tatum's decision to head north glossed over to make it almost like a dare.

Partly this is down to the inadequate performances from the leads. Tatum is cast well, looking like a fish out of water throughout the piece, but adds nothing to the character. Bell on the other hand is hopeless, from the moment the Eagle is first mentioned he maintains a stoically irritated expression which conveys no emotion or connection to his surroundings - when his loyalty is tested we don't doubt the sincerity of his early dedication to Tatum given he's barely registered any events since then.

The only quality performance is given by Tahar Rahim, speaking entirely in the geallic language made up for the British natives, showing a dignity and determination that seems to be missing in the central couple. Although given he's the de facto leader of the mythically gifted Seal People (who run faster than horses and give no quarter in battle) it's hard not to respect his presence.

The major issue though is the writing. Jeremy Brock's screenplay spends so much time talking about the prejudices of the characters and the difference between loyalty to a person against loyalty to an ideal that I became desensitised to those themes. Ultimately film is a visual medium and this movie seemed far too keen to tell us what it was about and not brave enough to show it. Even the casting parallels to the modern world (all the Romans are played by Americans, all the Briton's by Brits except for Rahim with French-Arabic ethnicity) aren't used to say anything within the movie.

Although the final insult was saved for the last scene, almost an epilogue, showing Tatum and Bell delivering the Eagle to the local Trivimulate. Cheesy and paving the way for a sequel it seemed tagged on and completely out of keeping with the tone and content of the previous two hours.

All in all this is probably worth catching if you are a pre-pubescent interested in the History of Rome, but not if you're looking for a film for grown-ups.

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