by Tim Ross
The Academy Awards are right around the corner, and film lovers are debating the best films of the past year. The nominees are all complicated films with rich, textured stories and nuanced performances.
“The Eagle,” starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, doesn’t have any of those burdens. It is a very simple film with a simple message and might be a reasonable escape for those into sword-filled adventures.
Tatum turns in a credible performance as career-minded, brooding young Centurion Marcus Aquila, who goes on a quest during the height of the Roman Empire’s conquest of Britain. Perhaps Tatum’s largest prior role to date is that of super-soldier Duke Hauser in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” but it’s quite a stretch from his most recent appearance as an airhead boy toy in “The Dilemma.”
Bell plays Aquila’s British slave, Esca. This is another role along a clear arc of weighty roles the actor has received since winning hearts with his portrayal of young Irish dancer Billy Elliott 10 years ago.
Marcus Aquila is a career Roman officer who could be assigned anywhere but chooses the unsavory outpost of Great Britain. Soon enough we find out why. His father, once a decorated Roman soldier, is now a subject of army camp whispers and gossip because he led an entire legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall, never to return.
Worse than defeat at the hands of the northern heathens is the loss of the Eagle standard the legion bore. The carved symbol is clearly a matter of national pride to the Romans and also a personal quest for Marcus Aquila. If he can venture where no Roman has dared go and bring back the Eagle, he will redeem his family’s good name.
Soon, Aquila gains fame in battle but is severely injured and discharged for his reward. Enter Esca, the slave who’s assigned to Aquila by his uncle to help him recover. Soldier and slave form a complicated bond quite quickly, and Aquila is ready to go on his quest.
Director Kevin Macdonald and writer Jeremy Brock whittle down Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel to a series of simple plot points that sometimes strain belief. Macdonald has helmed such layered films as “State of Play” and “Last King of Scotland.” He took a break from nuance with “The Eagle.”
We must simply believe that two men, one a slave at that, will succeed where a legion failed. We must also accept that they will form an unbreakable friendship of trust and loyalty even though Esca’s family was slain by the very soldiers and ideals that Aquila stands for. If you settle back, eat some popcorn and let your disbelief go, however, “The Eagle” creates a mood that is enjoyable to watch.
Macdonald pays close and successful attention to the mood, the feel, the look and shape of the film. The uniforms look right, the landscape looks right and the period in which the film is made looks right, down to the smallest detail. The only jarring aspect is the language. Bell sounds foreign and historically correct when speaking ancient British or Gaelic, but Tatum comes across as a lazy actor when the Roman’s “English” wavers in an out of a sort-of-British accent and his cohorts range from a nasally southern-Roman to a Brooklyn-Roman and some other dialects in between.
Tatum and Bell share the screen successfully and play off of each other well. There is an axiom present in virtually all films that goes like this: “Willing suspension of disbelief.” “The Eagle” asks you to suspend your disbelief more than some films, less than others, but it’s a pretty good escape if you are looking for something to do on a cold, rainy afternoon.
Grade: 2/4 Stars