For some reason, the Romans have been returning to Britain in the movies lately: Last year’s “Centurion” charted a rousing course across a second-century landscape, and the new film “The Eagle” returns for more action.
It’s based on a classic young-adult novel, “The Eagle of the Ninth,” by Rosemary Sutcliffe. A Roman general, Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum), whose father was disgraced when his legion lost a famous golden eagle to the barbarian Picts in the north of Britain, returns to avenge the shame.
And find the eagle, of course. The film opens with an exciting battle sequence at an isolated fort, where Marcus distinguishes himself for his courage. After that, he heads north of Hadrian’s Wall, accompanied only by a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell); perhaps by traveling light, they can infiltrate the enemy’s ranks and find out where the eagle is.
Director Kevin Macdonald, who did “State of Play,” places great emphasis on the relationship between Marcus and his slave, at one point reversing their roles when Esca gets among his own people. There are moments when their charged relationship approaches the homoerotic intensity of “300,” an effect reinforced by the absence of women in the movie.
But they can’t get a room, because there are no rooms in the land of the Picts. So the movie wakes up and remembers that it’s all about finding the golden eagle, and we need to get on with that.
Although “The Eagle” has some gripping moments and a generally evocative look (filmed in Scotland and Hungary), there’s something unresolved at its center. On the one hand we’re supposed to be rooting for the Romans to find their precious bird, but on the other we’re occasionally reminded that they are murderous invaders, occupying a land where they don’t belong.
About halfway through the picture, I almost thought Macdonald & Co. were going to do a reversal on the usual triumphal adventure story: pull a “Dances With Wolves” Roman-style, if you will.
Maybe Marcus will realize that the golden symbol isn’t worth a lot of people dying, and that Roman “honor” is a somewhat dubious concept given their track record, and that slaughtering native people might be worth a second thought.
But “Dances With Wolves” was then, and this is now. Macdonald does try to downplay the usual declaiming style of Roman-movie acting, with Denis O’Hare and Donald Sutherland particularly casual in supporting roles. Tahar Rahim, the star of “A Prophet,” makes an impression as an aggressive Pict.
Bell, the original “Billy Elliott,” always brings a clear focus to his roles, which means he easily outshines Channing Tatum here. Put those elements together and the movie is almost a winner. But I still give the nod to “Centurion.”