Neil Marshall has now developed a distinctive cinematic voice and he’s showing the older players that there can be other ways of doing things.


14 August 2010

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Plot summary

A splinter group of Roman soldiers fight for their lives behind enemy lines after their legion is decimated in a devastating guerrilla attack.

Centurion takes us back to AD 117 when The Roman Empire stretched from Egypt to Spain, and East as far as the Black Sea. But in northern Britain, the relentless onslaught of conquest has ground to a halt in face of the guerrilla tactics of the Picts. Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), sole survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman frontier fort, marches north with General Virilus’ (Dominic West) legendary Ninth Legion, under orders to wipe the Picts and destroy their leader Gorlacon. But when the legion is ambushed on unfamiliar ground, Quintus faces a desperate struggle to keep his small platoon alive behind enemy lines.

But Gladiator this is not, nor even a Roman Band of Brothers. Marshall has honed a distinctive horror aesthetic in his previous films; Doomsday being the latest example, and it is on full display here. Centurion’s extreme violence feels like something from a horror rather than a war film; heads being smashed to pieces, blood flying every which way. So bloody in fact that it often ceases to be truly frightening and the age-old fine line between horror and comedy becomes blurred. However, some of the fight scenes are hard to follow thanks to quick editing and lack of distinguishing marks between the two warring sides. They do move the film along at a fast pace, but Ridley Scott would flinch and Tom Hanks certainly wouldn’t put his name to this gorefest. Neil Marshall has now developed a distinctive cinematic voice and he’s showing the older players that there can be other ways of doing things.

Centurion is a cool, but beautifully shot film. Sweeping desolate landscapes adding to the feeling of isolation and peril that Roman soldiers faced in a world without GPS and radio communication. Some shots are so expansive and so lonely, they add to a haunting atmosphere where those alive wished they weren’t and where no one else would wish to be.

Dominic West is a dirty warrior and a General that commands complete loyalty from his men thanks to his hands on approach. He plays the role with a similar cheeky charm he portrayed so well as McNulty in The Wire. Fassbender proves to be a dominating screen presence and holds the film together remarkably well. He’s been gaining increasing attention since Inglourious Basterds, and he meets the challenge of his first title role in a mainstream film exceptionally well. It’s clear that he has a bright future. David Morrissey is criminally underused – as one of the UK’s leading acting talents, Centurion does not give him a platform to shine, though he is dependably excellent when he does appear.

Centurion tells the story of the hubris of empire and the repeated triumph of smaller less organised forces throughout history. There is one obvious comparison and that is with the American ‘empire’. There are some clear parallels; the initial attack on the Roman legion looks suspiciously like an Improvised Explosive Devise of the sort that has proved so lethal to US and UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This helps make Centurion feel relevant and adds to the satisfying feeling of watching a truly British production by one of the country’s most important new cinematic talents accompanied by the cream of the crop of our acting talent. For those reasons alone, Centurion is worth seeing. But it’s actually also a lot of fun too.