by Richard von Busack
IT IS hard to judge today’s audiences, but possibly they’re in less of a mood for imperial adventure than they have been in decades. The Eagle is not in the kind of shape to persuade them, despite Kevin Macdonald’s unusual attempt to bring a small and unbraced camera look to the ancient world.
The film is based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel about the historical disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion. Stationed in what was later to become York, Caesar’s soldiers vanished—and so did their sacred golden standard, the gilded, carved replica of an eagle. Here, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), the noble son of the Ninth’s commander, takes charge of a fort in England. After a battle with the local Celts (the film’s highlight, and it comes very early), he’s invalided out with a wound. Now discharged, Marcus decides to redeem his family name by crossing the frontier of the known world to find the eagle. With him comes Esca (Jamie Bell), a slave he saved from gladiator combat; the Celt is possibly untrustworthy.
We tend to underrate actors who have really magic physiques, as has happened since the early days of Burt Lancaster’s career. But in this huge role, the sleek and bland Tatum seems less magnetic than ever. At 30, he doesn’t have any tinge of mortality; he suffers the ordeals (some unanesthetized surgery), but he can’t make you feel his pain.
The provincial look of the film is intelligent: In one scene we haven’t seen done before, we note the shoddy, muddy look of the legionnaires guarding Hadrian’s Wall, the end of the line for the Empire. Macdonald’s team went for a pan-Pacific Northwest motif for the seal people in art and artifacts, as well as Mohawk haircuts. Over his hawk, the ever-evil and gray/blue-painted Mark Strong, their leader, wears a seal skull like a bellboy’s hat.
Women are almost out of the picture, though we see a few in the background cleaning sealskins. More than Tatum’s dullness, The Eagle never really gets started because of the kind of plotting that makes people leave this kind of adventure in their childhood: the astonishing coincidence, the timely bout of unconsciousness, the luck of being ambushed by savages and taken as a hostage to the exact spot you wanted to visit.
PG-13; 114 min.