Kevin Macdonald made The Last King of Scotland – the compelling real life story of Ugandan despot Idi Amin, told from the perspective of the newly-graduated Scottish doctor invited to become his personal physician who was drawn into his web before extricating himself. The film was brutal, uncompromising and involving as well as emotive and breathtakingly convincing.
The same man tackles the story of The Eagle of the Ninth – a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff – and aims to bring a historical epic to audiences that is at once authentic and gripping. From a director of Macdonald’s calibre, you could be forgiven for expecting him to deliver just that.
Sadly, his involvement only sets us up for greater disappointment than we might otherwise have experienced had The Eagle been under the control of another director.
The Eagle tells the story of a Roman soldier, Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), who heads north of Hadrian’s Wall into a mysterious no-man’s land in order to uncover the truth about the unsolved disappearance twenty years previous of the Ninth Legion – an army of Roman soldiers that had been led by his father. If he can retrieve the golden eagle standard carried into battle by the troops, he believes he can restore his father’s honour. With him goes his slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), a spirited Briton who owes him his life. But can he trust him?
Despite Macdonald’s failure to create a film with the impact of The Last King of Scotland, he is at pains to craft a movie that packs a punch and draws its audience in. And he isn’t without some success.
Far and away, the most captivating aspect of The Eagle is its use of location. Macdonald has done what very few directors before him have been able to do – shoot in the Scottish highlands where the film is actually set.
The arduousness of the shoot translates to great effect. The hostile conditions of the highlands in midwinter are tangible. You can feel every single freezing cold raindrop and every icy blast of wind. You go through the physically and emotionally draining journey with Marcus and Esca every step of the way, and when Marcus is close to death and his teeth chatter and his skin turns blue, it feels so real (mainly because it is).
The film benefits from this injection of realism – however, the script lets it down. Dialogue is pedestrian at best and performances, aside from the innate physicality of the roles, are nothing to write home about.
Battle scenes also disappoint. They begin effectively – the scene at the start where Aquila and his men form a phalanx is innovative, tense, thrilling and exceptionally well-shot – but they swiftly deteriorate. Where initially close-ups and the handheld camera are successfully used to plonk the viewer right in the centre of fight scenes, combat sequences eventually become a disorientating, confusing mess.
While The Eagle aspires to the likes of 300 and Gladiator, clashes and skirmishes are on the whole disastrously realised, in spite of the odd rolling head and spurt of claret. It wants to be a historical epic with weight and gravitas but is actually an insubstantial effort that lets down its audience.