13 April 2010

The Last Legion

Identity Crisis and Bipolar Casting Hurts The Last Legion
By Kristin Battestella

I love Arthurian material, and I love good old Roman Sword and Sandal pictures. Honestly, I wish there were more of both genres. Yes, we have shades of Arthurian beginnings in Roman Brittany and have been presented with Artorius via Rome before. Though led by a largely stellar ensemble cast, unfortunately 2007’s The Last Legion suffers from too much of an identity crisis from mixing Rome and Camelot.

In 460 A.D. the boy Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster) has been crowned the last Caesar. After Goth King Odoacer (Peter Mullan) sacs Rome and captures Romulus and his teacher Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), the prisoners are taken to Capri under the angry and watchful eye of Odacer’s Lieutenant Wulfila (Kevin McKidd). When Roman Senator Nestor (John Hannah) and Eastern Roman Ambassador Theodorus (Alexander Siddig) ally with Odoacer, loyal General Aurelius (Colin Firth) and his men swear to protect Romulus. Along with Indian bodyguard Mira (Aishwarya Rai), they rescue Romulus and Ambrosinus and travel to their last place of loyalty- Britannia. There they search for the Rome’s last legion at Hadrian’s Wall and discover the destiny of Caesar’s prophesied sword, Excalibur.

I warn you now, this review might end up being more spoileriffic than usual, as the unbelievable turns that The Last Legion takes are a little too ridiculous not to talk about. The opening history lesson leading us up to 460 A.D. is a nice capsule clearly telling us this is going to be about Excalibur. Unfortunately, the film is just that-a juvenile Arthurian establishment that sheds as much light as it confuses. The opening is too short and kiddie, but then the film takes half its time in getting where the narration says it needs to be. Is this going to be a tale of the fall of Rome through a child’s eyes as the first hour leads us to believe or an Arthurian knockoff as the hints suggest?

Last Legion [Blu-ray]The five writers Jez and Tom Butterworth, Carlo Carlei, Peter Rader and Valerio Manfredi (The biggest credit between them is Waterworld. Oiy!) take a long time to establish who is who and what’s going on for a short 1 hour and 40 minute show. And despite all the fine opening Roman pomp and classy cast, director Doug Kelfer (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess) never lets us gets past this destiny Sword and The Stone vibe-until its too late, of course. Halfway through The Last Legion, a seemingly triumphant rescue leads to the ‘real’ story of going to Britannia to find the final legion of Rome’s army. Huh? Though parts of the film are very entertaining and enjoyable, it’s incredibly annoying and a major buzz kill when a film is so uneven, mish mashed, and ill paced. When the viewer thinks he could have done a better job, something is amiss.

I don’t normally do a relatively bulk analysis of cast; but there are so many named, unnamed, oddly named, and similarly named folks in The Last Legion- and each is for good or ill in his own way. On one hand, the cast is exceptional-from an underutilized James Cosmo (Troy, Braveheart - why is his character named Hrothgar ala Beowulf?) and Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria) to Nonso Anozie (The Golden Compass), Owen Teale (Ballykissangel), and Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space 9). The proper strides for multicultural range and casting are fairly accurate and appropriate, thankfully. Ben Kingsley is also great fun as the seemingly washed up old schoolmaster Ambrosinous. Clearly, he is something more-as if Gandhi could be anything less then great! Although Ambrosinous is made too much like Gandalf or Dumbledore than a Merlin like he’s supposed to be, his fantastical comes too late and is too dang dumb after you’ve spent all this time making a relatively realistic attempt albeit with some historical inaccuracies. Is this Arthur in Rome or just a Roman tale? There’s too many hints of Arthurian coincidence, but we leave Rome too late to care how Ambrosinous ties into the Merlin we know.

I’m also not a fan of Thomas Sangster (Phineas and Ferb) as Romulus. After spending a few moments with him as the film opened, I kept hoping we’d flash forward and get rid of him. I don’t even think we get his name until a half hour into The Last Legion. Despite being some sort of Roman and Arthurian composite, Romulus is set up more like Frodo than anything else. He is such a fragile but important leader and carrier of Caesar’s great sword! And I swear they used the exact same snowy mountain montage from The Fellowship of the Ring, too! “That’s for my mother, and that one’s for my old Gaffer!’ oh sorry, wrong movie. Is it more than coincidence that like Rings, this was also produced by Harvey Weinstein? I have to say there’s also some homoerotic innuendo and again it’s all too Ringsish- almost exactly like Pippin and Merry buddy buddy Roman boys.

Unfortunately, this uneven dispersion of the ensemble is a hindrance, and frankly, Colin Firth (A Single Man, Mamma Mia!, Bridget Jones) completely misses the boat as Aurelius. Though he is supposedly the star, his dialogue is weakest, and he still sounds too Hugh Grant romantic comedy to be a Roman general. On the lone lady front, Aishwarya Rai (Bride and Prejudice) looks to be enjoying herself, but again the unrealized storylines don’t give her justice. Her introductory guard in disguise is obviously a chick who’s going to get a PG but sexy reveal. Rai also looks a little too young for Firth, especially since his men are younger and cool. We don’t see Goths too often onscreen, but thankfully, Peter Mullan’s (Red Riding) Odoacer comes and goes with perfection. The Goth names and styles are great, but I imagine their shaggy looks and confusing names make it tough to discern who is who without subtitles. Again, it’s the script that fails the fine performance of Mullan and Kevin McKidd (Rome, Journeyman). They say these Goth names too casually, as if these are iconic names like those of Rome and Camelot and we’re supposed to know them when we hear them. Odacer actually has a hard c, making it sound kind of silly, too.
Though Odacer is unceremoniously dropped from The Last Legion once it finally finds its supposed Arthurian vibe, the pursuing Wulfila is big, scary, and menacing. If something could ‘make’ this movie, it would be McKidd. And on a final casting note, it’s amusing to see John Hannah in this family friend tale now that he’s so kinky in Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Unfortunately, (That’s really how I feel about this movie, unfortunate!) this mostly quality cast has no time to do its magic because we are too busy putting Camelot in Rome. Replace Sangster and Firth, drop the Arthurian hocus pocus, and The Last Legion isn’t bad. But alas, we go a seriously pathetic Arthurian route instead. And you know what’s really sad? It isn’t even Arthur, it’s actually an Uther Pendragon origin story instead. Romulus, the boy who pulls the sword out of the stone isn’t Arthur! He sticks it in another stone so we can flash forward to find out another annoying little boy will also be schooled by Ambrosinus and save Britain. What? Okay, I’ll even admit I could be splitting hairs because Uther mythos is part of Arthurian legend, but what does this have to do with the supposedly elusive last legion, anyway? And to think, we get all this after one minute of really arduous travel time from Capri to Hadrian’s wall to find this impossible to find legion, sure. The first forty minutes should have been a fifteen-minute prologue, then the trek and pursuit, and then the final forty minutes in Britannia should have had an extra half hour. The titular legion comes into factor way too late-with 15 minutes left. This deus ex machina ending ruins the one night in England for the action on Badon Hill. And remember, all this Rome to Capri to Britain to the last legion is merely a set up for what’s going to happen twenty years after the movie ends. Whiff.

Although some of the wide and distant landscape shots are obviously effects, the internal splendor of The Last Legion works far better than its ill story. The armor is what we’d expect, getting the Roman idea across. Though not massive, the crowds and battles seem the right scale and scope. The daylight lighting and gardens are lovely, but the ambient lantern light and nighttime scenes are also handsomely lit. The score from Patrick Doyle (Hamlet, Sense and Sensibility) seems familiar. It fits but it also sounds like all the other recent adventure films and almost feels like it wasn’t made for this movie. When I settled in for my DVD viewing, I thought I had a moment or two to grab a lemonade and turn out the lights. Fifteen minutes later when I got through the trailers, previews promos, and commercials I almost forgot what movie I was going to be watching! I much prefer when similar releases or studio trailers are including in their own section. I mean, you want to see what disc you put in-and The Last Legion’s delayed debut at its own coming out party is not a good sign. The irony of it all was that none of the previews was for any movies remotely related to The Last Legion, and I wasn’t recruited to see anything promoted anyway.

I wasn’t very interested in Kelfer’s commentary, but the 20 minutes of deleted scenes add depth of adult characters and more Roman politics. But alas, in knowing how the film ends, these scenes don’t help the bipolar nature of The Last Legion. In the making of feature, Kelfer says this film is about the little known last emperor of Rome seen through the eyes of a twelve year old and then they presuppose what happened to him. You shouldn’t have. While I’m glad the story is made to be a smaller, personal idea of Rome- not a visual spectacle per say- the grasps at Arthurian fantasy make The Last Legion look like a cop out and cash in amid the recent historical fantasy craze. The behind the scenes short shows us the cast and crew didn’t set out to make such an indecisive picture, but they also look kind of dumb because they think everything they wanted to get across the screen made it to the viewer-and it didn’t.

Strangely, I don’t know whether to recommend The Last Legion or not. Fans of the cast and genres can enjoy, but this is also a very frustrating film. The Last Legion is merely adequate when it could have been so great with whichever personality it chose to run with. If anyone’s mind could be made up to go via the round table or when in Rome, I’d like to see the good of this cast in another tale. Unfortunately, I don’t know which is worse: the fact that this crossover also failed like 2004’s King Arthur or that two more similar films, Centurion and The Eagle of the Ninth, are forthcoming. Take the Roman good of The Last Legion if you want to-or don’t bother and write your own Arthurian take instead. Then again, who says you have to make up your mind? The Last Legion didn’t.


Anthony said...

I found your intriguing article via google alert - thanks. But think and review tho' you do, I think your thinking ran out in the last paragraph! The Eagle of the Ninth and Centurion are certainly not similar films (to my way of thinking); and TEONT is not similar to The Last Legion. Mind you I am a biased thinker, related as I am to the author of The Eagle of the Ninth, and rooting as I am for the film being made. See www.rosemarysutcliff.wordpress.com )

All the best

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi Anthony Thanks for stopping by!

So cool you're connection to The Eagle of The Ninth novel! I imagine Centurion will be some big action spectacle, but you're right in that they will differ from The Last Legion as in they are primarily about the legion. It's a ripe historical era for film, so maybe someone will get it right! The Last Legion ruined itself.