The Eagle


Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, Tahar Rahim 12A cert, gen release, 114 min

IT’S DIFFICULT to know what the Scottish Tourist Board will make of this diverting historic adventure from the versatile Kevin Macdonald.

True, the Roman invaders do regard the northern tribes as unimaginably fierce. When young Marcus Aquila, an injured officer eager to avenge his slandered father, makes for Hadrien’s Wall, the authorities make few plans for his return.

On the other hand, the depiction of second-century Scottish life does conjure up certain disgraceful stereotypes about that nation. Drenched in blue dye, bedecked in semi-precious jewels – looking, in other words, like the people who hand out leaflets at the Edinburgh Festival – the tribes-people devote their lives to suicidal boozing and recreational decapitation. Did we mention that Macdonald grew up in Glasgow?

Anyway, based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth,Macdonald’s film works pretty well as a relocated western. We begin with Marcus (Channing Tatum) repelling Britons from a fort in the southern part of the country. Following honourable discharge, he becomes obsessed with his father’s notorious experiences leading a legion that vanished north of the wall.

Joining forces with a native slave (Jamie Bell), Marcus sets out to discover what happened to the unit and to recover its iconic standard, the titular Eagle.

Fast becoming a master of both documentary and drama, Macdonald, director of The Last King of Scotlandand One Day in September, invites Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot both Slumdog Millionaireand Antichrist, to spread diffusive mists and damp sunlight about the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery. Bell (stubborn, sly) and Tatum (stoic, unflinching) do a good job of stoking personal tension.

In its later stages, The Eagle does get a bit bogged down in looming atmosphere. There is something of Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent (and underrated) Valhalla Rising in the film’s eventual foreswearing of plot for ancient gloom. Moreover, the decision to have the Romans all speak in American accents – acceptable in Tatum’s case; plain silly for the London-born Mark Strong – does suggest that some painfully clumsy point is being made about recent US adventures in the Middle East.

For all that, The Eagledelivers more than enough sombre thrills for your hard-earned denarii. Thumbs cautiously up!