Dir. Doug Lefler, US/UK/Fr/Sl/It, 2007, 110 mins
Cast: Colin Firth, Sir Ben Kinglsey, Thomas Sangster, Aishwarya Rai, Peter Mullan, Kevin McKidd, John Hannah, Iain glen
Review by Jean Lynch
Once more, our shores are prey to a stealth attack. As the last of the loyal few who are pledged to the Caesars embark surreptitiously onto British Soil in 476 AD, in search of the the 9th – The Last – Legion, so this latest swords and sandals and sorcery epic sneaks silently into our cinemas, unannounced and unsung. Should we be wary of such an attack?
It is always alarming when a film’s release – particularly one that boasts Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, John Hannah and Aisharya Rai among its cast and which clearly has enjoyed a considerable budget – receives very little fanfare and, indeed, receives very little promotion. Film critics tend to sharpen their pencils with glee.
Which is why The Last Legion is a bit of a mystery because, while derivative and lacking in parts, it’s not too bad a film at all. What we have is the tale of the young Romulus Augustus (Love Actually’s beguiling Thomas Sangster), a 12-year-old boy who, one the eve of his crowning ceremony for being appointed Caesar, bears witness to the arrival of the Barbarian general Odoacer, a suitably dour and determined Peter Mullan. Roumulus’ father Orestes (Glen) refuses to make a deal with the visitor, who makes demands of the Roman Empire following his decade-long support of Roman legions in the East. Afraid for his son, he appoints Aurelius (Firth, a somewhat world-weary soldier) as his personal guard. This proves a most sensible move as, come nightfall, the barbarians return in a murderous rampage, leaving the boy Caesar an orphan and taking both he and his teacher and mentor, the shaman Ambrosinius (Kingsley), prisoner in the hilltop fortress on the island of Capri. However, it is here that both man and boy realise Romulus’ true destiny, and the boy finds the statue of Julius Caesar, along with his glittering, inscribed sword, and reads the prophecy: “one edge to defend, one to defeat, in Britannia I was forged, to fit the hand of he who was destined to rule.” Hmm, does this remind anyone else of another epic adventure?
One of the weakenesses of the film IS that it feels like the makers have literally sifted through some of the most successful films of recent years and picked a choice selection for their own devices. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing but subtlety should be a requisite of this tactic for it to be handled well. Earlier in the film we are told that ‘what happens tonight will echo across the centuries’ (see Gladitator) and, as Aurelius mounts his successful rescue attempt of Romulus, he is accompanied by the black-clad Byzantium warrior who, we learn, is actually a deadly female warrior, Mira (Rai) – a kind of cross between Lara Croft, Keira Knightley in King Arthur, and Uma Thurman’s Bride - who can take on an entire army seemingly single-handedly.
The film is also a tad confusing. Unless you know your history and have a talent for remembering very long names, and are very adept at pulling these almost throway threads together, you’ll struggle. The best bet is to just accept that these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, and sit back and not intellectualise too much, for the historical facts are merely a backdrop for a traditional adventure story that gives way to the birth of a mythical legend.
And here lie the strengths of the film. While the film’s style may recall the LOTR trilogy, it’s roots lie in our collective distant past and is the first to successfully marry history and legend. Without revealing too much, this is a prequel to the Arthurian legends and it manages to combine the realism of first century AD history with the ethereal, literary magic of one of our nation’s most enduring and romantic heroes.
The culmination of the tale sees Aurelius, Romulus and their men seeking and finding The Last Legion and calling upon them to help them regain their hold of ancient Briton, a fierce and bloody battle ensuing. Ambrosinius, very conveniently for the filmmakers but yet in keeping with the story-telling tradition, rounds off the film by explaining, years later, to his new protege what happened to everyone after the battle. It’s twee, and a time and money-saving device, but it works well and may even bring a tear to the eye.
This is perhaps one of the few films that may have benefitted from being a little longer so as to allow the pace to flow more succinctly. Thomas Sangster displays guile, reserve and resilience as Romulus – a considerable feat in one so young – Sir Ben is suitably sagelike as the wise mentor, and John Hannah, as the lily-livered, treacherous Nestor, gives another delightfully slimy performance. Rai is under-used and appears to serve merely as decoration and Firth – more of a character actor than the action hero – carries off the role in a thespian manner but lacks the stature of a Russell Crowe or even a Clive Owen (as in King Arthur) to make his character larger than life. However, collectively the cast acquit themselves well and, if you’re looking for some rousing adventure, you could do worse than spend a few hours back in this once and promised time.