Roman Britain. A Centurion and his men are killed North of Haydrians wall. Indigenous tribes captured their Eagle standard, the sacred symbol of Rome.
20 years later. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) the Centurion’s son, must restore his father’s good name. He takes command of an outpost fort but during his first engagement many of his men die. He is wounded in battle and given honourable discharge.
Whilst recovering in the South at his Uncle’s house ( Donald Sutherland) he saves the life of a slave Eska (Jamie Bell). Despite his loathing of the Romans, who killed his family, Eska vows a debt of honour to Marcus and together they set out on a mission North of Haydrian’s wall to recover the Eagle.
Across the border they are captured by the Seal tribe (lead by Tahar Rahim) and to survive Marcus must pretend to be Eska’s slave, but will Eska betray him now he has the upper hand?
An archetypal hero’s journey story. I thought it might go Heart of Darkness (like Apocalypse Now) or more eco warrior (like Avatar) but it sticks to a buddy movie structure. The theme being loyalty to ones friends over ones people. The dialogue sometimes feels a bit cliched to support this.
The film is small scale, focusing on the two leads and the action is gritty and realistic rather than mythic or epic. Kevin Macdonald seems most interested in the anthropology and feel of Ancient Britain – he really shows the world of Roman occupying forces and the world of the Indigenous tribesmen.
The Romans are played by Americans and speak English – this suggest parallels with modern colonialism. Whilst the tribes people speak in an Ancient dialect. Eska must translate them for Marcus and this creates tension as it’s a chance for Eska to betray him. These conversations had subtitles and I think maybe if we were kept in the dark like Marcus it would have created more doubt for us about Eska’s motives too.
Channing Tatum is brooding and a bit one note in his performance, apart from one soapy scene where he shouts at Donald Sutherland and a good rousing speech he gives near the end. Jamie Bell was excellent as Eska, which is probably the more interesting of the two parts. He is more of a shape shifter and has to make a choice to betray his friend or his people. I enjoyed it, though it hasn’t really stayed with me.