Duncan Kenworthy, The Eagle film producer, passionate about The Eagle of the Ninth children’s book

Producer of film of The Eagle of the NinthDuncan Kenworthy , producer of the film The Eagle, took seventeen  years to bring the Rosemary Sutcliff historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth to the screen. In that period his film work has included Four Weddings and a FuneralNotting HillLove Actually, and Lawn Dogs. He began work  in television and children’s programmes working  for  the Children’s Television Workshop in New York, working on Sesame Street and then for Jim Henson in London, including shooting a TV series The Storyteller written by Anthony Minghella.

In an interview for the Focus features microsite about The Eagle film he says:

I was hired to be Jim’s assistant in 1979 on The Dark Crystal, and I worked very closely with him for ten years. He was a genius, an amazing person, and when he died in 1990 it was a huge shock, not just to me but to the world.

The Eagle movie has taken a long while to create. Kenworthy optioned the book from the company Sussex Dolphin which owns Rosemary Sutcliff’s copyrights (which I chair) in 2004. Oscar-winning documentary director Kevin Macdonald joined him a year later. Their early  idea was to make the film like a documentary – Macdonald made his name first with the mountaineering documentary Touching the Void. In the Focus Features interview he says of their early plans for the project:

Two actors, the Highlands, the heather, the horses — we wanted to get in the skin of 2,000 years ago, and knew that what you’d lose by not having large-scaled effects you would gain by the proximity of the impact … the focus on something small and intimate and real became a key element of the project which seems to me to mirror the intensity of Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing, as well as getting away from the big Hollywood treatment of a film like Gladiator.”

But as the project developed, it became bigger with the director Kevin Macdonald, also a fan of the book from his childhod  finding ways of:

” … giving The Eagle scale … adding fire to the night-time battle at the beginning … was his idea. It immediately gives a tremendous sense of scale and surprise.  … I wanted to make sure we conveyed the reality of the book, because that’s what hooked me originally.”

Rosemary Sutcliff , in Duncan Kenworthy’s view, was

” … such a brilliant writer, and she beautifully described the physicality, the nature, and the detail of the period. She had had Stills Disease from childhood, and was in a wheelchair all her life. Because she was immobile, she lived inside her imagination. She would be in the garden in the summer, lying on the ground and she studied everything — the structure of the leaves, the habits of insects — and her writing as an adult is informed by this extraordinary ability to describe things, to make the physical world real to the reader. We’ve tried to stay as true to her instinct and spirit as we could. I was obsessive about everything being accurate and unfaked. We spent a lot of time and a huge amount of the budget making all of our costumes from scratch.”

(This ability to see and portray the detail derives also, I think,  from Rosemary’s training as a painter of miniatures at Bideford Art School, in Devon in England.)

In the article, Duncan is asked whether , now that The Eagle is finished and ready for release, the finished film lines up with his childhood memories of Sutcliff ’s story?

“It’s hard to answer. As I’ve gone through the process, that childhood vision has been transformed. A film has different requirements; a film imposes a different structure. Different sorts of resolutions have to be found or created. A film is a different beast; it’s related to the book, but lives in parallel to it … but I’m just as passionate about it”

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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