Twenty years after the Ninth Legion of Rome vanished in the north of Britain, Marcus Flavius Aquila heads north with his British slave to discover what became of the men led by his father, the man responsible for guarding the company's eagle standard. Based on a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle is beautifully shot and sturdily directed by Kevin Macdonald, but Aquila's imperialistic nature makes him an unsympathetic lead. This, coupled with actor Channing Tatum's obvious discomfort during some of the more dramatic scenes, somewhat lessens the film's impact.
Aquila (Tatum) shows great bravery as a Roman centurion, but faces the sniggers and contempt afforded to a solider whose father lost thousands of men. During his service in Britain, Aquila saves a Roman garrison from attack, but badly injures his leg in the process. After his honorable discharge from the military, Aquila decides to chase down rumors that the Ninth Legion's eagle standard has been seen north of Hadrian's Wall, where it is said no Roman can survive. Accompanied by his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), Aquila heads into the harsh tribal wilderness of northern Britain.
If the story of the Ninth Legion feels surprisingly fresh in your mind, it's likely because it was explored last year in Director Neil Marshall's Centurion. The Eagle is less pulpy and more restrained than Marshall's film, and it benefits from a more narrow focus. Macdonald, the man at the reins here, directed State of Play and The Last King of Scotland, and keeps the film moving at a nice pace. The Eagle, released under the Focus Features banner, has more drama than combat action, but Macdonald incorporates some fairly unique fight scenes and camera angles; I especially liked how Macdonald shot a river scene by mimicking the bobbing of Aquila straining against the current.
Tatum nails Aquila physically, but occasionally stumbles over the more intense dialogue. Tatum is able to bark orders with ease, but appears fidgety during somber, intimate exchanges. Bell again proves his ability to elevate a film with an effortless performance. As Aquila and Esca travel deeper into tribal lands, their master/slave relationship grows tenuous, and Bell slyly turns the tables on the patronizing Aquila. Donald Sutherland also pops up as Aquila's uncle, and Mark Strong portrays Guern, a survivor of the Ninth Legion living with a northern tribe.
The search for the Ninth feels more about recovering the golden eagle standard than finding the missing soldiers. Set in 140 AD, The Eagle follows a Roman empire drunk with power and intent on achieving political and economic hegemony over the region. The golden eagle is both a symbol of Roman unity and of vicious imperialism. Aquila first enters the north with contempt for the men living in the vast wilderness, but quickly realizes it unwise to underestimate these tribesmen.
Shot in the beautiful hills of Hungary and Scotland, The Eagle feels vast in scope and environment. Its headstrong lead from an unsympathetic empire tempers its emotional resonance and keeps The Eagle from being great, and Macdonald occasionally forges forward a bit too impassively. Even so, The Eagle is enjoyable in its straightforward conjecture of the fate of Rome's most famous legion.
The Eagle is a visually arresting film, and Focus Features' 2.35:1/1080p/AVC transfer is beautiful. Director Macdonald gives the film a gritty, natural appearance, complete with striking earth tones and shadows, and the Blu-ray replicates this look perfectly. Detail is abundant, and the image is consistently deep and very textured. Close-ups reveal the pores on Aquila's face, while wide shots display miles of beautiful clarity. Colors are warm and bold, especially during daylight, where striking greens and reds explode from the screen. The filmmakers used each setting's natural light to illuminate the screen, which results in heavy shadowing in spots. Far from being a problem, this stylistic choice is actually very striking, and detail is still present, even when the actors are cloaked in shadow. Blacks are appropriately deep, and, while some heavier grain and black crush do pop up in nighttime scenes, compression noise and digital manipulation is never an issue.
The film's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is completely immersive. Expertly balancing the film's quiet scenes of contemplation with the chaos of battle, the track makes aggressive use of the surrounds. Dialogue is at all times crisp, and the track uses its thundering front-end reaction to complement the action. The rear speakers also come to life to create a 360-degree environment, and effects frequently travel throughout the entire sound field. The score is also presented in great clarity. Spanish and French 5.1 DTS tracks are also available, as is a DVS track. English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles are included.
EXTRAS AND PACKAGING:
Focus Features includes an attractive, embossed slipcover with the first pressing of The Eagle, as well as a digital copy via download. The Blu-ray includes the theatrical cut of The Eagle, along with an unrated version. Both versions run 1:54:09, and I can only assume the unrated version replaces some gore trimmed for the theatrical cut.
Extras are disappointingly sparse and include a tempered commentary by Director Kevin Macdonald in which he discusses filming on location, the legend of the Ninth Legion and working with the cast and crew. The Eagle: The Making of a Roman Epic (12:12) is an EPK-style making-of that offers little true insight into the production. Also included are deleted scenes (6:22) and an inferior alternate ending (4:37).
Far from the epic spectacle I was anticipating, The Eagle is a gritty, intimate drama that follows Roman centurion Marcus Aquila as he searches for the lost Ninth Legion and its eagle standard. Its gorgeous cinematography and driving pace help offset some spotty acting by Channing Tatum, who is upstaged by Jamie Bell. It is somewhat difficult to sympathize with the face of Rome's imperialism, but, while The Eagle floundered in theaters, it is skillfully crafted and worth watching. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.