Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Film Review: The Eagle

Romans. The Americans of their day, sporting a vast Empire across the known world. It perhaps only fitting then to give all the Romans in The Eagle an American accent. It's hardly subtle in its deliberate allegory, similar to that when Hollywood casts Brits in roles of villains as some sort of parallel with the American Revolution, but it is annoying in the sense that it detracts from the 'period feel' of ancient Rome. Certainly, I found it difficult to get that distracting little voice out of my head which was screaming throughout the film "Yanks!". But then I suppose we couldn't have Americans playing the oppressed peoples of the British Isles under Rome's yoke. That would have been too ridiculous...

When Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum), a young centurion bent on restoring his family's honour after his father lead an ill-fated expedition of the Ninth Legion, is permanently incapacitated within a day of his first command, he finds himself milling away his days around his Uncle's (Sutherland) villa after an honourable discharge. After saving a British slave named Esca (Bell) from death in a gladiatorial arena, the two form a bond and embark on a mission to retrieve his father's Ninth Legion standard, a golden eagle rumoured to be in the possession of a vicious tribe north of Hadrian's Wall.

The Eagle is based on a 1954 novel by by Rosemary Sutcliff called The Eagle of the Ninth. Part fact, part fiction, it is based around the myth surrounding the Legio IX Hispana, a Roman legion which was rumoured to have been destroyed by Caledonian tribes in AD 117. Since its publication however new historical evidence has come to light that the Ninth Legion was not in fact destroyed in Scotland, with records showing that elements of the Ninth were actually posted along the Rhine after AD 117. Further, the actual golden eagle upon which the story is based, housed in a museum in Reading, is not that of a Legion's standard but that of a Jupiter statue in the forum of the Roman town. As such, as a 'historical epic', The Eagle suffers from the advances made in historical study, making the film less fact and more fiction.

The Eagle starts off with a bang as the fresh faced Aquila faces an assault on his new command in the opening minutes. We are introduced to Roman fighting tactics such as the 'tortoise' in brutal fashion, with the shaky, gritty, close-up action shots we've come to expect from films set in the ancient world. It sets a good tone for an exhilarating film and the action scenes do indeed remain consistent throughout. But the problem is the bits in between which feel disjointed from the action scenes. Essentially, The Eagle amounts to a mismatched buddy movie. It follows the formula where two people who couldn't be any different from one another are thrown together for whatever reason, and, over a series of events, are able to bond and surmount those differences where by the end the two will have developed a bemusing friendship. Sure, this is the end result of The Eagle, but it is the 'how' which is missing as the film sort of stumbles along. We are treated to bits where the two bond, but the developing friendship is never actually transmitted. As such Esca's actions appear particularly odd and the whole relationship becomes a sympathetic fallacy. Director Kevin Macdonald does interestingly try to create a juxtaposition of scenery with Roman occupied Southern Britain bathed in sunlight, covered in vine leaves with the harsh, barren, windswept highlands of the North in an attempt to show the contrast between civilization and barbary. However, you can't help but smirk if you've ever experienced the tenuous British summer.

Historically inaccurate, made all the more jarring by American accents, and bogged down by a plot based around a peculiarly dysfunctional, robotic relationship, this film is substantially less epic than the trailers would have you believe. Unfortunately, The Eagle never really finds flight.