Eagle, The: Kevin Macdonald’s Weakest Film? Starring Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum

Old-fashioned, earnest, and a bit dull,  “The Eagle” is a middle-range historical saga, anchored by two appealing actors, Jamie Bell, who can act, and Channing Tatum, who cannot.

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Arguably, this is the weakest film made by the gifted Kevin Macdonald, who had previously helmed “The Last King of Scotland,” a much better film which features Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance.

Macdonald works from an underwhelming screenplay by Jeremy Brock, based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” (which was the original title before distributor Focus Features abbreviated it).

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “The Eagle” and last year’s British feature, “Centurion,” which tells a similar story and some critics liked.

Focus Features faces an uphill battle in putting over this modest wanna be epic domestically, when it opens February11, but it’s the kind of work that might appeal more strongly to foreign (especially European) viewers.

The first reel is particularly weak in delineating the political-historical context.  We learn that in 140 AD, the Roman Empire extends all the way to Britain, but its grasp is incomplete, as the rebellious tribes of Caledonia (which is Scotland today) hold sway in the far North.

Set in the second century, the tale is based on the legend surrounding Rome’s Ninth Legion, whose 5,000 strong men embarked under the command of Flavius on a dangerous journey to Northern Britain and were never seen again.

Carrying their golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth, marched north into Caledonia. They never returned–Legion and Eagle simply vanished into the mists. Furious, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the building of a wall to seal off the territory. Hadrian’s Wall became the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, the edge of the known world. Which means the narrative unfolds as a quest for a symbol representing glorious past.

After a brief prologue, the story jumps ahead to two decades later, when the young Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is given his own military command.  Freudian psychology defines the relationship between Marcus and his father, the great leader of the Ninth.

Marcus arrives in Britain, determined to restore the tarnished reputation of his father, Flavius Aquila. Time and again, the lad, who carries a chip on his shoulder, is haunted by his father in flashbacks that suggest his main motivation, that is, to regain his family’s honor, and prove that he’s a worthy soldier, capable of fighting the brutish Brits.

After Marcus is wounded, he comes under the wings of his benevolent patrician Uncle (Donald Sutherland, always reliable, in good and bad movies).  More importantly, Marcus saves the life of a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), who becomes loyal to him.

With the appearance of Esca, and the story now centering on the more nuanced and complex relationship between master and slave, “The Eagle” gains considerable, dramatic momentum.

Master and slave venture beyond the known world on a dangerous, even obsessive quest, which puts to the test loyalty and betrayal, friendship and hatred, deceit and heroism  Together they devise a risky plan to travel north beyond the Hadrian’s Wall into Caledonia, which was built after the Ninth’s disaster.

The level of dramatic tension increases, when Esac feels his allegiance conflicted, torn between loyalty to his master and to his countrymen, who have been abused and victimized by the Romans.

The film’s last reel, which is the most involving and effective, picks up energy in depicting Marcus and Esca forced flight, while facing insurmountable obstacles.

Much more could have been made in the writing, direction, and acting departments of the segments depicting the psychological and emotional interaction between Marcus and Esca.

Ultimately, despite claims to being a sampler of the Roman historical (sand-and-sandal) epic genre, “The Eagle” is an endeavour which, in today’s market, is too humble and modest for its own good.

Quite disappointingly, the only compelling performance comes from Jamie Bell, an actor who continues to grow and develop.  Tatum is handsome and photogenic, but, as he had demonstrated in most of his previous efforts (Stop-Loss, for example), he is a limited actor, who’s particularly weak in delivering dialogue.  There’s sameness to almost everything he says—or does.

The secondary actors all play narrowly defined roles, beginning with Sutherland and including Tahar Rahim (who was so good in the French prison drama, “Prophet”), who’s cast as Seal Prince.

In moments, but only in moments, the film offers visual pleasures, largely due to the imagery of ace lenser Anthony Dod Mantle (Danny Boyle’s collaborator, including the current “127 Hours.”)

Some of the battle scenes are engaging and thrilling to watch, and they are the most likely elements to sell the otherwise modest and dull epic to teenagers.  Parents might argue with the PG-13 Rating for a film that includes much blood and mayhem, but we all know how contradictory the Rating Board assessments are.

Problem is, “The Eagle” is not really compelling or satisfying on any level–as historical epic, action-adventure, geographic travelogue, or master-slave melodrama.  I felt frustrated at the end, wishing the film had been richer and fuller in details.

It does not help that “The Eagle” overextends its welcome by at least 15 minutes.

Cast

Marcus Aquila – Channing Tatum
Esca – Jamie Bell
Uncle Aquila – Donald Sutherland
Guern – Mark Strong
Seal Prince – Tahar Rahim
Lutorius – Denis O’Hare

Credits:

Film4 of a Duncan Kenworthy production.

Produced by Kenworthy.

Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Miles Ketley, Charles Moore.

Co-producer, Caroline Hewitt. Directed by Kevin Macdonald.

Screenplay, Jeremy Brock, based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel “The Eagle of the Ninth.”

Camera, Anthony Dod Mantle.

Editor, Justine Wright.

Music, Atli Orvarsson.

Production designer, Michael Carlin; supervising art director, Peter Francis; art director, Neal Callow; set decorator, Rebecca Alleway.

Costume designer, Michael O’Connor.

Sound, Danny Hambrook; sound designer, Glenn Freemantle.

Special effects supervisors, Peter Szilagyi, Mike Kelt;

Stunt coordinator, Domonkos Pardanyi.

Assistant director, Tommy Gormley.

Second unit director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

Casting, Jina Jay.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 115 Minutes