Sunday, April 03, 2011
| Posted by
The last time I drove to e@Curve to watch a movie at Cineleisure, it was for an utterly forgettable Channing Tatum movie titled Fighting that I only went because I was tasked to review it, and I badly dented the car I was driving.
I'm happy to report that this time, first time driving there since then, the car was fine, the movie was fine. And would you believe it, Channing Tatum is one fine actor in this one. I even liked Jamie Bell in this one.
In both cases, I consider it their best acting performances in their young careers so far; well, for Mr Bell, since his debut.
Credit should of course go to director Kevin Macdonald as well, who was already a director within my radar sights since I saw Touching The Void, my favourite documentary feature film to date. (I had the great fortune of meeting Mr Macdonald very briefly once at the 2007 Telluride Film Festival; if he's reading this – as if – he might remember me as the Chinese fellow who unhelpfully detained him with questions about his movies while his kids were demanding to go off somewhere.)
Delving into the movie itself: prior to watching it I did fear that it would be another pedestrian entry to the swords and sandals genre (and I use that term with a grimace). Though earlier I was excited that Macdonald was to do this Roman Britain story, and that it was to star Tatum (surprising choice) and Bell (who in past roles irritated me more than anything), nothing in the trailer seemed to indicate that the movie would be anything groundbreaking.
It would be a disappointment if that turned out to be the case; there's scarcely any movie made about Roman Britain (though Centurion was released not too long ago and covers similar ground with a cast that includes Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko), and how many of them are good? Other than King Arthur stories, it's not easy to entertain a mass audience with this niche genre.
You might question why I'm interested in this era, in this location. Simple, it's different from what you might normally associate with the Roman Empire. The outposts of empires, places at or beyond the borders, those kinds of places interest me; it speaks of isolation, of loneliness, of the strange and unknown, of survival and relying on oneself, away from help, of the solitude, the dark nights, the vast landscape with nary a soul in it. (Correct me if I'm wrong but some or all of these are themes of Romanticism.) This is the Roman Empire with living populations measured in dozens and hundreds, and the same with its scale of battles. Here, the glory of Rome as you saw it in movies like Gladiator are only heard, through the recollections of other people, never seen – the Celtic tribes might have thought the Romans to be boasting hyperbolae when the Romans describe the grandeur of their homeland. Yet, there is a surprising parity between the invading Romans and the indigenous tribes; despite the assumed technological and cultural superiority of the Romans, the incident alluded to in the backstory of this film (5,000 Roman soldiers disappeared without a trace in the lands of Alba) so frightened the Romans that they built what would later be called Hadrian's Wall as a way of keeping the tribes out. (It's not as imposing as the Great Wall of China, but that's not the point.)
The movie itself focuses on Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman centurion leading a legion in Britannia whose actions are constantly driven by his father's uncertain involvement in the disappearance of the Eagle of the Ninth, a symbol of Roman military might, and Esca, a Briton slave whose courage impresses Marcus. Between them they embody a very Roman flavour of the virtues Bravery and Loyalty, and this is depicted in a way that does not seem lame or inconsequential, perhaps largely because Tatum and Bell are actors with earnest-looking faces, playing earnest characters. Theirs is a master-slave relationship that became something more platonic, which I really felt and very much enjoyed. There's a scene when a surgery has to be performed on Marcus and Esca is to hold him down, which should invite more comment but which I won't get into. :p
The cinematography by the Academy Award-winning DP of Slumdog Millionaire alternates between shakycam and more classical shots (especially when depicting the expansive, desolate landscapes of the Scottish Highlands) and is expertly edited such that we don't notice them. The action scenes were a little blurry, hard-to-see, but I'm fine with it.
I've never taken much notice of Atli Örvarsson's music in previous films, but I was rather captivated by some of the motifs he used here; among them the exoticism in the Celtic bits and the quiet heroism in the Roman parts of it. By the way, this marks the first time Macdonald isn't working with his usual choice of composer, Alex Heffes.
Another thing worth commenting about: watch this film for a lesson in sound design. It is a very atmospheric film, which makes sense when you consider, for example, that there's fog in a lot of the scenes, and the ritualistic nature of the tribes, and the psychological terror that the tribes often successfully put the Roman soldiers through. The film should (though it won't) be considered for the Sound Mixing Oscar when that comes along. In particular I was impressed with the simple but highly effective choice during the climactic fight between Marcus and the Seal Warrior prince (played by Tahar Rahim of Un Prophète fame) to mute all sounds and leave only the harsh and intense clanging of the swords – one feels as if the stakes of each sword-strike and dodge are raised at that point.
I didn't mind the accents. What seemed to be the choice here is to have the Americans play the Romans and the British play the Britons, which is no better and no worse than the stereotypical choice of having British accents for the Romans. Film critics made too much out of this non-issue. Also, for those who are expecting Gladiator: again, population and army sizes in this part of the world of that time are too small for grand battles, and to expect that would be as realistic as to expect a child to score 120 in his exams when the maximum score is 100.
Some slow moments in the second half of the second act, but I shan't complain; after all, the movie depicts many aspects of Roman Britain society (and does so reasonably accurately for a film adaptation, though I don't know for sure), and how often does one get to see that?