wed 30/09/2020

The Eagle | reviews, news & interviews

The Eagle

The Eagle

Director Kevin Macdonald's rugged depiction of the Romans in Britain

Tahar Rahim (left), Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum are drawn into the quest for the missing eagleKeith Bernstein

A chorus of "Hooray! No CGI!" has greeted Kevin Macdonald's new film version of Rosemary Sutcliff's popular novel, The Eagle of the Ninth. Not for him a Gladiator-style digital Rome, or Troy-like computer-generated navies stretching away into infinity.

A chorus of "Hooray! No CGI!" has greeted Kevin Macdonald's new film version of Rosemary Sutcliff's popular novel, The Eagle of the Ninth. Not for him a Gladiator-style digital Rome, or Troy-like computer-generated navies stretching away into infinity.

Laying off the gadgetry is lighter on the budget too, but Macdonald claims it was part of his plan to stick to the human scale and traditional virtues of courage and honour that drove Sutcliff's book. In fact, it's hard to see how else he could have done it, since the story boils down to two men, Roman officer Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) and his taciturn English slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), as they travel beyond the northernmost fringes of the Roman Empire to find out what happened to the vanished Ninth Legion.

The film's chief strengths are its convincing suggestions of what Roman Britain might have felt like, and its eloquent use of landscape, especially the vaulting panoramas of the Scottish Highlands that frame the later part of the story. Hungary and Romania stood in for the supposedly English scenes, probably because they couldn't find a landscape in Blighty without a Tesco in it. The film hits an early peak in the scene where Marcus, newly appointed as garrison commander at a fort in south-west England, rallies his grumbling troops to repel an onslaught by the murderous natives. Having launched a daring raid to rescue some of his captured soldiers, he rashly squares up to a charging enemy chariot, which flips over and lands on top of him.

sutherlandNext thing he knows, he's recuperating at the villa of his uncle (Donald Sutherland, pictured right with Channing Tatum), who's giving it plenty of older-and-wiser. The good news is that Marcus has been awarded a medal for gallantry by the top brass. The bad news is that they've given him an honourable discharge because of his wounds. It's here that Marcus's not-so-hidden agenda kicks in. His father was the commander of the Ninth Legion, and its inexplicable loss remains a stain on the family honour. He proposes to head off alone to find out what happened to his dad and the Ninth's emblematic golden eagle, which, it's rumoured, has been spotted in the far north. For company, he has the slave Esca, bought for him by kindly Uncle Don after Marcus saved him from being disembowelled in the local gladiators' arena (Jamie Bell, pictured below).

jamie_injunMacdonald stokes up a plausible sense of an unknown Great Beyond as they leave Hadrian's Wall behind and head into the crags and glens of Caledonia, where the natives live in soggy mud huts and look even more miserable than the constituents of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Well, all except the Seal People and their warlike leader (Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet), who cover themselves in mud, bear a strange resemblance to Iroquois indians, and cut off the feet of their dead enemies so they can't walk into Paradise. But as the two-hour narrative progresses, soundtrackist Atli Örvarsson's droning Celtic music becomes increasingly irritating, while the faint hiss of escaping dramatic tension becomes harder to ignore.

eagle_maccaIt doesn't help that the two leads remain doggedly one-dimensional, Tatum playing grimly determined while Bell opts for silent and stoical. Though we know Esca's oath of loyalty to Marcus is sorely tested by the fact that he's the son of a tribal chief slaughtered by the Romans, this doesn't exert as much force on the drama as it looks as if it should. The quest for the lost eagle is anti-climactic, too. Having known little about the fate of the Ninth, we're handed an explanation on a plate, where some lingering uncertainty might have proved more eerie and haunting.

Nonetheless, there's a rugged, sinewy quality about The Eagle that sets it apart from more synthetic epics, and there's plenty to enjoy even if it lacks a few twists of killer grip. But when he went in search of a straightforward tale told the old-fashioned way, Kevin Macdonald (pictured above on set with Tatum) may have achieved his objective a little too thoroughly.

The good news is Marcus has been given a medal for gallantry. The bad news is he's been given an honourable discharge because of his wounds

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