The Eagle

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong
Distributor: Icon Films
Runtime: 114 mins. Reviewed in Jul 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes and violence

Little publicity preceded the release of Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle. But for those who enjoy authenticity in historical dramas, especially those set in the ancient mists of Roman Britain, this is a film worth seeing.

Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Eagle is set in 140 AD, and follows the efforts of a young Roman centurion, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), to reclaim the honour of his dead father, who twenty years before led the Ninth Legion to their deaths in a battle against the Pictish tribes of northern Britain.

Marcus becomes the commander of a Roman garrison south of Hadrian’s Wall, and gains the respect of his men when he leads them to victory after a fierce onslaught by Celtic tribesmen. Marcus is decorated for his bravery, but honourably discharged because of a leg wound. But while living at the southern estate of his uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland), he saves the life of Esca (Jamie Bell), the son of a Brigantes chieftain.

When Marcus hears rumours that the ensign of the Ninth Legion, the golden eagle, still exists, he determines to discover the eagle, and along with it, perhaps, his father’s honour. Thus he and Esca undertake a journey northwards to the land of the Seal People that changes the way Marcus and his slave think about the world and each other.

Kevin Macdonald is a filmmaker of distinction (One Day in September, Touching the Void, State of Play). And while The Eagle is not Macdonald’s best film, due largely to the monochrome acting of Channing Tatum (Public Enemies), it nonetheless has some admirable and exciting qualities.

The world of Britons and Romans is conjured without undue resort to special effects or computer generated images, and the costumes and battle scenes are realistic without reliance on artificial, pumped up masculinity or gratuitous violence.

Women are only glimpsed briefly in the tribal world of the Britons, and this conspicuous lack of a dominant female or a love interest may disappoint some. For others, the focus on Marcus’ quest to discover the truth about the disappearance of his father, the stark beauty of the sparsely populated landscape (filmed in Scotland and Hungary), and the ambivalent developing relationship between master and slave, may suffice.

The Eagle remains true in spirit to Rosemary Sutcliff’s best known novel, while boasting memorable performances from Donald Sutherland as Marcus’ civilised uncle, and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Jane Eyre) as the unreadable Esca.

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