The Eagle

The Eagle

**1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Kevin Macdonald follows his critical and commercial success stories Touching The Void and The Last King Of Scotland with an ambitious period epic set in a divided Britain of the year 140AD. There's fertile ground for a historical action romp here, Macdonald concentrating on the legends of the construction of Hadrian's Wall and the Romans' war with the Pictish hordes. He's also furnished with two of today's most promising young actors, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, ably supported by the likes of Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong. Somewhere along the line, though, the director drops the gauntlet, leaving his mud-caked cast adrift in barren Scotia with precious little to do at precisely the stage where his swords and subterfuge saga should be finding its legs.

Marcus Aquila (Tatum) is the son of a legendary legionnaire who, 20 years ago, led his troops north of the Border never to be seen again. With them went the symbol of the Romans' dominance, the solid gold Eagle Of The Ninth, and in their wake Hadrian's Wall was erected to keep the Pictish hordes from setting foot in newly-colonised England. Taking station at the wall, Marcus is injured in a heroic defence of his troops, finding himself honorably discharged and completely at a loss as to how to live his life away from the frontline. His Italian recuperation has him bonding with Donald Sutherland's kindly uncle, and rescuing Jamie Bell's death-wishing slave Esca from a mismatched Gladiatorial bout.

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As an uneasy mutual respect develops between the two young men, Marcus steps forward with the proposition of embarking on a reconnaissance mission to retrieve the Eagle from the Scottish savages, in order to restore Roman confidence and redeem his family name.

Early scenes are luminously shot, Hungarian locales doubling for ancient England and highlighting why the Romans would be so determined to conquer such a land. Hadrian's Wall is convincingly re-erected, the atmosphere behind it effectively established as one of constant tension. A patrol's Pictish ambush is handled with armour-piercing aplomb, Macdonald finding the right balance between his reputedly obsessive attention to detail (evidenced in the Romans' weapons, costumes and combat formations) and good old-fashioned barbarian carnage (represented by the almost supernaturally feral Picts). Tatum impresses in his first few scenes, finding the right tone of noble solemnity and echoing Brad Pitt's physicality in Troy when it comes to getting stuck into battle. The pivotal siege on the wall is impressively mounted, where cunning Roman tactics and a refreshing avoidance of shaky-cam perspectives seem to offer promise of a thrilling adventure to come.

Sadly, Macdonald proceeds to let his narrative grind to a halt from which it never recovers. The mostly static scenes in Italy highlight how annoyingly inconsistent the cast's accents are; Tatum at least attempts one befitting his character's stature, but elsewhere you've got Americans doing a bad Brit impression, Brits slipping into Americanisms and Sutherland being, well, Donald Sutherland. It's distracting to say the least, and coupled with a practically humourless script the story soon becomes alienating.

It's also unclear what Macdonald is trying to achieve with the rampant homo-eroticism he stirs into Tatum and Bell's relationship; initially the cautiously earned trust between them gives their scenes together a tangible intensity, but as their Brokeback Mountain-echoing clinches bring them closer the film becomes almost laughably cheesy. It seems at once a cynical provocation to make the plot more interesting and a laboured bromance to bring us closer to the characters, neither of which really work, despite Tatum and Bell gamely playing it as straight as possible.

The film tries to take a more interesting path about halfway through, Bell making Tatum accept a reversal of their master and slave roles so that they can infiltrate the Pictish clans. These scenes should be effortlessly suspenseful but instead are turgid and deplorably cliched. Macdonald tries to have his cake and eat it by humanising the Picts, but he merely adds more stereotyping to their depiction, the attempt to make them sympathetic coming off as an afterthought in concession to his own homeland. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when it is all thrown out the window for the inevitable pursuit back to the border, the Picts reverting to ridiculous animalistic tropes in scenes unavoidably reminiscent of similar but far superior fare such as Apocalypto and Last Of The Mohicans. These scenes allow the breathtaking cinematography to shine again but they fail to take flight with their fleeing protagonists.

Macdonald just can't recover from his story's midway lull, everything that follows being either too familiar or too predictable to excite. A final battle tries hard to be rousing but it's merely a half-hearted retread of scenes from the start, and our heroes' walk into the sunset together feels transplanted from a bad buddy-cop movie. For a 12A, there's a surprising amount of violence, excplicitly shown and otherwise: there are fully visible decapitations and limb-loppings, and a child-slaying that is still upsetting despite the camera briefly cutting away from the actual blow.

The BBFC could easily be accused of snobbish nepotism in going easy on this film, but then again the recent (and infinitely more enjoyable) Ironclad pushed the boundaries of the 15 certificate in turn. Attempts at historical accuracy - if not reverence - seem to make this sort of bloodshed more acceptable, but prospective families should be warned that The Eagle is pretty brutal for its certificate. Of course, that will also probably put off gorehounds, leaving the film in something of an uneasy quandary in terms of who it is supposed to appeal to. While it does seem that Macdonald is cutting away a little at points to secure his rating, those expecting a toothless tale should rest assued that the action is still robust and visceral. It's just a shame there's not more of it...

Reviewed on: 25 Mar 2011
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The Eagle packshot
A Roman soldier tries to retrieve his legion's lost emblem from the Pictish hordes.
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Glasgow 2011

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