Film: The Eagle
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim
Written by: Jeremy Brock
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald
Genre: Action, Adventure, Rad Bromance
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD SPOILERS!
Marcus Aqulia (Channing Tatum) is a young commander in the Roman army, circa mid-second century CE. He lives under a cloud of dishonor, however, since his father disappeared in the north of Britain while commanding the Ninth Legion. Not only were 5,000 men never heard from again, but the golden eagle standard the legion used was never recovered. After Marcus is injured in a battle and honorably discharged from the Roman army, he seeks to restore his family’s good name by recovering the eagle and venturing north of Hadrian’s wall, a place where no Roman ever returns. His only support comes from the British slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who knows the language and the people, but may not be entirely trustworthy.
Based on the young adult novel The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle is an effective film in surprising ways. Yes, director Kevin Macdonald fills the screen with striking landscapes, epic battles and a rousing score by Atli Örvarsson, but those aren’t the most interesting parts of the film. The heart of the film is the relationship between Marcus and Esca, which can only be described as a bromance for the ages. I haven’t read the source material, but I’m pretty certain that Sutcliff didn’t giver her literary protagonists this much subtext. There are more than a few downright homoerotic moments between Marcus and Esca, but they never seem forced or arbitrary. The relationship develops very organically over the course of the film.
Of course, the relationship itself would be nothing if the wrong people were cast in the roles. Like any good bromantic couple—Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes for example—chemistry is key. Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell may not be the best actors in the world, but they work well together and make the relationship believable. Tatum doesn’t fare quite as well as Bell does. Tatum’s accent wanders too much, and he needs to work on mastering more than two expressions, but he’s better than his pedigree recommends. Bell has a much wider range, and he comes off as the better skilled of the two. It also helps that both of them are rather easy on the eyes in very different ways: Tatum is a beefy, at times vaguely simian, hunk of man, while Bell is a lean, eccentrically attractive kind of guy. Let’s just say that Bell’s come a long, long way from Billy Elliott. Tatum hasn’t come a long way since G. I. Joe, but I’m not complaining too much.
The supporting cast is nearly superfluous, however. Donald Sutherland breezes through an extended cameo as Marcus’ uncle, but every scene begs the question: “Why Donald Sutherland? Was Christopher Lee busy?” Mark Strong‘s supporting appearance could have been played by anybody, and he doesn’t get the opportunity to do much with the role (and he has some of the most groan-worthy lines in the film). It’s as if so much went into making sure the leads worked well that very little thought was given to the rest of the speaking cast, small as they may be. Tahar Rahim may have been good as a British warrior, but it’s hard to tell since all of his dialogue is in Gaelic and he has little to do but look menacing.
The main flaw of the film lies in its screenplay. Again, I don’t know how faithful Jeremy Brock’s script is to Sutcliff’s novel, but the dialogue and metaphor have all the subtlety and nuance of a 10th-grade English textbook to the forehead. Granted, that still puts the film leaps and bounds beyond the majority of Hollywood output these days, but it’s almost as if the script is the result of being asked to write an essay for class. Tatum and Bell still handle the words well, and it’s a credit to their abilities that they’re able to sell some of it. They keep the script from bogging down the film, and that’s pretty impressive.
The Eagle is an old-fashioned quest with traditional characters, but it has a much more contemporary take on the friendship between the two male leads. It’s not as blatantly homoerotic (or as ridiculous and camp) as 300, nor is it as mindlessly violent, and that’s a good thing. Marcus and Esca have a very complex relationship that takes a number of twists and turns in the course of the film, but they’re always relatable characters that have a definite earthiness to them. It’s easy to ignore the subtext between them if you’re not looking for it, but impossible to ignore if you even think about it for a moment. The eagle itself becomes almost an afterthought pretty quickly into the film. Through all the thrilling swordfights and dangerous travels, it’s the relationship between these men—and not some anvilicious symbol—that drives the story and makes you want to ride alongside them.
That, and…well, they’re hot.