In 140 A.D., twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) arrives from Rome. After distinguishing himself in battle, the injured Marcus uncovers some information that could solve the mystery of the missing legion and allow him to restore the reputation of its fallen commander: his father. Accompanied only by British slave Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus ventures beyond Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia to confront savage tribes and retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem - the Eagle of the Ninth.
Although novelist Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote mostly for children her splendid historical adventure novels are distinguished by their mature, intelligent and complex themes. Happily such themes remain at the forefront of this handsomely crafted film adaptation Sutcliffe’s “The Eagle of the Ninth” which marks the third fiction feature from award-winning documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald. Drawing faintly contentious parallels between the Roman occupation and Anglo-American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Macdonald presents a vision of the British isles liable to stir troubling thoughts in the minds of homegrown viewers. Here we have a landscape ravaged by war yet nonetheless volatile and overrun with violent insurgents burning with hate for the occupying forces. Remind you of anywhere?
Through the character of Esca, the plot challenges Marcus’ preconceived ideas about Rome as the shining embodiment of all that is civilised, honourable and decent in the world. In his eyes and indeed, the eyes of most Roman citizens, the Eagle is a symbol not only of Rome’s imperial might but its moral superiority, its existence as a beacon of light in an otherwise savage world. And yet, as Esca points out, the seemingly civilised Roman legionnaires did not hesitate to desecrate those totems held sacred by the Britons, nor brutalise their women and children any less savagely. Once the heroes cross the border into Caledonia, the roles of master and slave are reversed, with Marcus forced to pose as a captive to help Esca infiltrate a hostile tribe. Things grow increasingly taut and suspenseful as Marcus starts to wonder whether he can really trust Esca while the latter is torn between his undeniable hatred of Rome and a debt owed to the man who saved his life.
The set-up is something of a slow burn and may test those more accustomed to the non-stop action approach of those more conventional (read: dumb) historical adventure films. Those with patience however will be rewarded with a pleasingly nuanced adventure yarn both thematically complex and emotionally gratifying. Macdonald’s background as a documentarian is evident from the vivid manner in which he depicts the landscape. Viewers can almost feel the mud, sweat and battering elements while the battles are visceral and unsettling without crossing into that familiarly gratuitous territory common since Braveheart (1995). The bedrock of the film remains the arresting, charismatic performances delivered by the oft-underrated Channing Tatum and gifted Jamie Bell. Their solid characterisations provide a key component towards conveying the film’s essentially optimistic message that honour is a concept that transcends racial, political and national boundaries to stand as something fundamentally humane.