Thursday, April 14, 2011

THE EAGLE - Job. Done.

I really enjoyed THE EAGLE. I loved it in the same way that I love commanding my Roman cohort to form the Testudo against a bunch of screaming German women and wolf-skin wearing savages in Rome Total War. It's a guilty pleasure that works for anyone who ever loved sword-and-sandal epics  or was forced to do a lot of class-civ. as a kid. And let's be honest, "the ninth legion" is a phrase that, for people educated in a certain time and place*, resonates strongly. Raised by Pompey to fight in Spain, the Legio Nona Hispana were definitely massacred by Boudica's Iceni in AD 60's Roman Britain, and were rumoured to have vanished north of Hadrian's Wall in AD 120, but may well have been finally defeated by the Teutons....Whatever happened, they represent the inability of Mighty Rome to hold off the Native Horde - a story that resonates today as we see the superior forces of our modern superpower struggling to fight scrappy insurgents in the Middle East. And this is the parallel that Scottish director Andrew MacDonald and screenwriter Jeremy Brock (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) bring to this adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's popular children's historical adventure, "The Eagle of the Ninth", by giving the Romans American accents and by confronting them with the motives of the "insurgents".

As in the novel, the story is simple and compelling. Young Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) is the son of the disgraced Roman general whose legion was massacred by the northern British tribes. Worse still, those tribes captured the legion's Eagle - its symbol of authority and good fortune. Desperate to restore his family's honour, Aquila deliberately seeks a posting to Hadrian's Wall, and when injured defending his men, he journeys north of the border to find the Eagle without the sanction of Rome. We have, then, the Stakes. But the heart of the novel and the film is the relationship between Aquila and his slave-then-friend, Esca (Jamie Bell). Aquila's emotional arc takes him from viewing the Celts as savage insurgents of little honour and less integrity, to brave fighters defending their homeland against Rome's rape and pillage. The Seal People may do savage things - not least their "crown prince" as played by Tahar Rahim (UN PROPHET) but in death, when the war paint washes off, he is just a young man defending his tribe. So, by the end of his journey, while Aquila is still convinced of the idea of Rome, he can cock a snook at the Senate, and take the lead of a Freed Man (a ham-fisted scene admittedly.)

The resulting film is really well put together. Andrew MacDonald gives us all those little details of life in a Roman outpost that made the novel feel real and alive - we feel the armour chafe, we feel the adrenaline inside the Testudo, we hear the crowd cheer the gladiator. I loved Anthony Dod Mantle's photography - beautifully capturing the Scottish rural landscape and the fog of battle. This isn't Rome as glossy and glorious, but life in the trenches against an enemy that hates you. I was impressed by Channing Tatum as Aquila. He was convincing as the young soldier from the patrician family - born to lead - but also as the demoralised and depressed decommissioned soldier. He had genuine chemistry with Jamie Bell as Esca, and the way in which their understanding of each other develops is the back-bone of the film. Of course, Bell is the better actor, but the pairing didn't feel as imbalanced as I feared it might.

Is the film perfect? Of course not. As I said before, the final scene seemed a little cheesy. (Englishman) Mark Strong's American accent was so broad as to be distracting. We lost some emotional punch in the reduction of Cradoc (the guy on the chariot with knives sticking out of the axle) from a guide-turned-traitor to a generic screaming savage. And by axing Cottia (the love interest in the novel) but refusing to amp up the homo-erotic aspects of the story, MacDonald leaves the relationship between Aquila and Esca annoyingly ambiguous. Still, for all that, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed THE EAGLE. It was beautifully put together, solidly acted, and gave me a real feel for AD 100s Roman Britain. Job. Done.

THE EAGLE was released in February in Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada, the USA; Bulgaria, Finland, Romania, Indonesia and Armenia. It was released in March in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the Philippines, Greece, Kuwait, Egypt, Denmark, Hungary, Malaysia, the UK, Portugal and Singapore. It was released last week in Lithuania and Spain. It opens on April 18th in Estonia and Norway; on April 28th in Croatia and on May 13th in Turkey. THE EAGLE is released on Region 1 DVD on June 21st. 

*And if you think I'm taking this too far, we learned Latin before we learned French; our school magazine was called Aquila (Eagle!), the debating society was the Quintilian Society; the school moto was Alta Petens....To say that I was conditioned as a child to be fascinated by Rome is an under-statement.

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