'They Came Flying From Far Away, Now I'm Under Their Spell...'
I always think of this time of year as the doldrums, movie-wise: all the classy and thoughtful awards-bait has been and gone (though I note that The King's Speech is still hanging on at the local Odeon), while the no-brainer pyrotechnic stuff that will be clogging the arteries of cinema all summer is still a few weeks off (summer seems to be starting earlier and earlier: maybe even late April, this year). In the meantime there's a variety of mid-range releases on offer, not expected to make major money or win much acclaim. That doesn't mean it’s all bad, by any means.
As a case in point, let's look at The Eagle, a new movie by Kevin Macdonald (also director of the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland). Based on a venerable and well-respected novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a gritty tale of blood and honour in the ancient past of Britain.
This is the kind of film where you know to expect two things: an opening caption filling in backstory, and wobbly historical accuracy. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, a second-century Roman officer posted to the edge of the empire: Britain. Aquila's family has been in disgrace since his father disappeared while leading the Ninth Legion into the far north of Scotland, the disastrous loss of troops symbolised by the loss of the army's standard – a gilded eagle. Aquila is obsessed with redeeming his family's good name but his efforts seem doomed when he is invalided out of the army following a clash with native rebels.
Then a rumour reaches Aquila: the eagle of the Ninth has been sighted north of Hadrian's Wall, used by a barbarian tribe in their ceremonies. He sets out into the lawless wasteland to retrieve it or die in the attempt, accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell). Here his life will depend on the loyalty of Esca, who has sworn to obey him, but how far can he rely on the word of a former enemy of the empire?
You might be forgiven for expecting The Eagle to be a fairly standard, blokey, sword-and-sandal romp, very much in the vein of Gladiator and films of that ilk. To some extent this is true : there is a gladiator fight at one point, and very frequent swinging-of-swords throughout, but I found this film reminding me much more of other things. The quest into unknown territory with an ally who's an unknown quantity, motivated by family loyalty, made me think rather a lot of the recent True Grit ( there are some strikingly similar images here ) but I was also very much reminded of Shekhar Kapur's 2002 version of The Four Feathers.
That was a movie with a big budget and fairly big-name stars, which failed – mainly due, I think, to misjudging the tone of the material and making a potentially rousing romp drearily earnest and political. The Eagle, I hasten to say, shows no sign of failure, creatively or at the box office, but it does contain rather more depth than you might expect from this kind of film.
The most obvious expression of this is in the casting of American and Canadian actors as most of the Roman characters, with the Brits played by locals. The decision to intentionally link 'American' with 'occupying army' is, well, an interesting one. It's not dwelt upon, though it does produce one rather jarring moment: playing a veteran legionary, Mark Strong is thus required to put on an American accent, which does seem terribly odd. The film does refuse to take sides, too: the Romans and the British are both shown as being equally capable of what seem by today's standards to be hideous atrocities.
To be perfectly honest, The Eagle , though not a tremendously long film , does take a little while to get going, in terms of the main plot if nothing else. This does actually work in the film's favour as it uses this time to establish a very strong sense of atmosphere and tone. Ancient Britain is a convincingly savage and unsettling place, almost unrecognisable by modern standards. The wilderness north of the Wall is, quite frankly, horrible, and very, very wet. Horrible in a different way, and less appealing to look at, is the violence which punctuates this film, much of which seems to me to be very strong for its certificate: quite apart from the numerous scenes of burly men hewing at each other with gladii, there's a scene where someone gets his… well, anyway… and another one where somebody… yes, umm, I think you get the picture.
I enjoyed it all rather a lot, though I wonder how much of it has any basis in actual history (the Seal People, most brutal of the native tribes and effectively the bad guys here, look utterly extraordinary, more like African tribesmen than Celts). That said, the general windswept misery and brooding tone of it all mean that it never quite takes wing as a pure adventure story (the lack of any female speaking parts didn't bother me, though I did notice it: but it's hard to imagine how any could have been contrived), while Macdonald quite wisely doesn't allow the more thoughtful elements to swamp the story of the two main characters and their deepening relationship.
The Eagle isn't quite up to the standard (no pun intended) of much of Macdonald's past work, but it works well as an intelligent, gritty, and highly atmospheric action-drama. If most of the movies we got the rest of the year were only as satisfying as this one, I still think most people would tend to consider that a bit of a gain.