Roman epic The Eagle is a cut above the standard swords-and-sandals fare, but a shaky performance from lead actor Channing Tatum lets it down.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland
Ever wondered about which foodstuffs Roman soldiers ate for lunch? Ever thought about how they dealt with battle injuries on the operating table? Or how and where they slept in faraway garrisons? Or even how they dressed themselves quickly and efficiently, strapping on armour, in the punishing low light of a midnight attack? For these are the questions, and more, that are answered throughout Kevin Macdonald's gritty Roman-era epic The Eagle, a movie that displays the kind of meticulous and pleasing interest in place, setting and social relations that is rarely found in the biff-bam world of sword-and-sandals movies such as 300 or the recent Centurion.
Of course, the director Macdonald made his name in non-fiction filmmaking, with the award-winning One Day in September and Touching the Void. And as such there is an equally penetrating documentarian's eye watching over this entire movie, one that acts as a formal balance to the fairly axiomatic boys' own tale at its core. In this case the action antics are liberally distilled from Rosemary Sutcliff's best-selling children's novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, about how the titular Roman legion mysteriously disappeared in 117AD while north of Hadrian's Wall, and how Marcus Aquila (Tatum), the son of the legion's commander, is determined to win back both the honour of Rome and that of his dead father by leading a two-man mission into the deadly lands of northern Britain to reclaim the eponymous gold standard.
Aquila's companion on this mission is a charismatic Pictish slave called Esca (Bell), the son of a northern warrior king who begrudgingly owes Aquila his life after the latter, in one of the movie's less credible moments, gradually persuades a bloodthirsty gladiatorial crowd to spare Esca's throat with a unanimous thumbs-up verdict in the arena. Thus, after an initial scene-setting first act, in which Aquila is honourably discharged from the army after a mighty clash with southern English tribes, our two heroes set off together, like a bickering mismatched Butch and Sundance, on a seemingly impossible expedition through a land swarming with knife-wielding savages.
In all this the detail is the thing, and there is a genuine sense in The Eagle that Macdonald is really stretching himself, and the production, in order to show us a precise version of dirt-strewn Roman Britain that simply cannot be bedevilled by Monty Python giggles or Carry On snickers. It's telling, for instance, that when Aquila and Esca finally make it into the heart of the Pictish north, the tribes they encounter there speak only ancient Gaelic and form elaborate ritualised societies rather than appearing as simple bands of over-painted killers.
It helps, too, that the increasingly impeccable Bell (Hallam Foe, Billy Elliot) brings to the screen a deadly level of conviction, and is sourly convincing in every line, look and glance. On the downside, though, and it's a hefty caveat, the lead actor Tatum is still very much a shaky performer - great to look at, suitably beefy, but often emotionally blank. The decision to place the entire project on his shoulders was a risky one, and may yet be the movie's undoing.