It’s 140 A.D. and Roman Emperor Hadrian is really ticked off. Twenty years previously in Britain in 117, the 5,000 man Ninth Legion marched north into Caledonia (now Scotland) and disappeared along with their golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth. So Hadrian built a wall across the entire country, sealing off the north.
That’s the story that came out of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel, The Eagle of the Ninth, which she wrote in 1954. Sutcliff’s supposition made for a gripping story, but some research casts doubts on her novelistic premise. Some records can be interpreted as indicating that detachments of the Ninth Legion were serving on the Rhine frontier later than 117, and it has been suggested that it might have been annihilated in Eastern Europe, not Britain.
Sutcliff also based her novel on the discovery of a wingless Roman Eagle at Silchester. But Silchester is in the South, nowhere near Hadrian’s Wall in the North, and the eagle that was found is clearly not a Legionary Eagle, but a decorative one. Even given these historical niceties, Sutcliff fashioned a terrific story out of them and this film captures it nicely.
Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) takes over a small garrison in the Southwest, determined to rejuvenate the reputation of his father, Flavius, who commanded the disappeared Ninth.
Saving a slave, Esca (Jamie Bell), from slaughter in the arena of his uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland in a fine performance), and hearing that the Eagle has been seen in the North, Marcus and his slave take off by themselves to retrieve it.
Tatum and Bell give fine performances as they walk and ride through the wild North looking for the Eagle, encountering various obstacles and native savages along the way. Ably directed by Kevin Macdonald from a fine script by Jeremy Brock, production designer Michael Carlin teamed with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar® for Slumdog Millionaire) to film Scotland to look as wild and forbidding as it must have in the second century A.D. — maybe even more desolate than it really was back then.
While I liked a previous film set near Hadrian’s Wall, King Arthur (2004), which was speculation about who Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table really were, that film was based on nothing with any historical basis (the story of Arthur comes from old Welsh legends, put into literature by Geoffrey Monmouth in his mostly fictional Histories of the Kings of Britain, written circa 1135-39). This, on the other hand, is an entertaining adventure film made a bit more tantalizing by the speculation based on real facts.
I’ve been rooting for Jennifer Aniston for years. I thought she would make it as a terrific light romantic comedienne and I admired her spunk for appearing in indies — films that seemed to me to be below the star material for which she could aim. This unfortunate outing shows how low she has sunk, having to co-star with Adam Sandler, no less, for whom actual humor is but a forlorn dream. Sandler has a nice smile, but his stock in trade, I guess, is mumbling through his lines. I don’t know if that’s the way he actually speaks, but he’s an actor and he should be able to learn how to speak in a way that is not normal for him. If mumbling is normal, he might consider forsaking it when he’s onscreen. If it’s not normal, he needs to rethink how he wants to be perceived as an actor.
Sandler aside, this reeks of bromidity. It’s based on Abe Burrows’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s Cactus Flower. That film, however, had Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn as its stars, and the acting — especially Hawn and Matthau — is what made it moderately entertaining. That’s a big leap for people like Aniston, Sandler and Brooklyn Decker, and they aren’t even close to being up to it. Aniston squints her way through it while Sandler mumbles and Brooklyn Decker flashes her ample breasts.
To make up for the lack of humor supplied by the stars, it’s filled with the stock gay stereotypes that directors like Dennis Dugan seem to think bring humor when the scripted lines and acting can’t accomplish that purpose. Dugan (and writers Alan Loeb, who was also responsible for the misogynistic The Dilemma which came out last month, and Timothy Dowling) has a gay hairdresser, a gay concierge, and even one of the main characters is gay even though we are led to believe throughout the film that he’s heterosexual.
This thing seems a lot longer than the credited 116 minutes. The only possible redeeming virtues are appealing performances by Nicole Kidman as Aniston’s college nemesis, Bailee Madison as Aniston’s annoyingly precocious daughter and some nice Hawaiian locations.