Director: Kevin Macdonald Running time: 114 minutes **
AT THE premiere of The Eagle, which closed the Glasgow Film Festival this year, you could feel the audience willing Kevin Macdonald's movie to succeed.
And if the aim had been to create scenes reminiscent of Toga Night at Studio 54, this film would more than have fulfilled its brief.
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a young Roman commander determined to restore his family's honour by finding out what happened to his father, who disappeared 20 years ago in Caledonia with 5000 men of the Ninth Legion.
Early on it's established that Tatum has a body fat ratio lower than most people's mortgage rates, but his humourless hero is hardly dynamic.
So thank goodness he saves the life of Esca, a bitter Briton who becomes his indentured slave, since he's played by Jamie Bell, an actor who tends to give dodgy films (Jumper, Defiance) rather more texture and spark than they deserve.
Together, against the advice of a wise uncle (Donald Sutherland), they hurdle Hadrian's Wall into Pict land, hoping to retrieve the totemic eagle left there by Marcus's dad, and from here on I think the best way to enjoy The Eagle is to treat it as Brokeback Roman, with Marcus and Esca barely suppressing their desire for each other.
In Ben Hur, Charlton Heston had no idea that Stephen Boyd had been told to play Messala as his rejected lover, but it added umami to a sword and sandals broth.
If Macdonald had also punched up the subtext for his Romano and Juliet, who knows, we might have had an interesting gay movie that played it straight. Instead, all this ham-fisted manly devotion is dangerously self-parodic.
Macdonald has made some striking documentaries (One Day In September, Touching The Void), but the alchemy seems to desert him in fictional stories: Idi Amin's gruesome history became the background for a lurid potboiler in The Last King Of Scotland, while State Of Play's only real challenge was believing Russell Crowe's waddly newspaper reporter could outrun a military trained assassin.
The Eagle is another uninspiring plod, a thrash of swordplay and dutiful battles which feels less like an epic story to resonate across the centuries, and more like a crib from a 12-year-old's history project. Before the film's release, the decision to have American actors play the conquering Romans while their Pictish and Celtic opponents speak Gaelic was trumpeted as a modish political allegory but, like the movie that puts forward one of our most hideous modern despots only to shove him to one side, or the film that proposes the death of newspapers then boils it down to Helen Mirren complaining about deadlines in a gorblimey accent, Macdonald throws out great bait, but fails to deliver anything terribly perceptive beyond the usual pensees about empires and their resentful colonies.
On the credit side, Macdonald fought hard to shoot in Scotland, a nightmarish task by all accounts, but one that pays off, with the bleak, tough landscape creating a formidable enemy for Aquila. It's certainly a more convincing foe than the mud-caked pagan Seal Tribe, who can apparently outrun horses, yet noticeably fail to balance balls on their noses or honk horns.
On general release from Friday
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 20 March, 2011