Award winning director Neil Marshall teams up with Michael Fassbender (300), Dominic West (300 also) and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, L’annulaire) to weave a controversial version of the history of the legendary Roman Empire’s Ninth Legion. Based in 117 AD, Centurion follows the premise that the Ninth was wiped out whilst on a military expedition to eradicate the Picts- a tribe native to northern Britain who brought the Roman invasion of the isles to a standstill with their ruthless guerrilla tactics. Following the gratuitous slaughter of the Roman force, a handful of survivors must struggle against the bitter Scottish winter to return home, whilst being hunted by deadly Pict warriors.
Ok, so maybe sandals aren’t so popular in the dead of a northern winter; but don’t worry, swords are certainly still in vogue.
Despite catch cries to the contrary, Centurion is not the next 300. Rather, it is something entirely different. Brutal and bloody to be sure, yet Centurion bears no allusions to traditional views of Rome or the ‘barbarians’. Instead, beyond our band of brave heroes, the rest of the Roman Empire is portrayed as an arrogant, ignorant and utterly incompetent bureaucratic menace. In contrast, the Picts are depicted respectfully, in spite of their savage outward appearance. Moreover, even though the audience is encouraged to root for the Roman soldiers, the overarching war is morally neutral at best. This adds an element of ethical conflict, as the Roman troops are certainly valiant and only desire to return home. However, after all their nation has done to the Picts, should we really be on their side? This kind of gray morality sets Centurion apart from the typical Good vs Evil Hollywood formula, and gives the film a darker, more realist tone.
Unlike too many historic pieces, Centurion actually portrays the ancient world quite well, despite the fictional plot. If any other history buffs out there are tired of seeing utter bastardizations of history and poor representations of the nations of antiquity, rest assured that Centurion succeeds where so many fail. For example, Centurion‘s centurions actually wear armour! That’s right, they don’t rely on their CG abs to deflect arrows whilst fighting in their underwear. Instead they make use of an archaic invention called body armour. Even better, the film is full of the overlapping plate armour and chain mail that was popular amongst Roman soldiers around 100AD, as well as other equipment relevant to that era of the Roman Empire. Sure, the film has a few historic oddities, but even the nerdiest of history buffs should be able to brush those aside and enjoy one of the best works of historic fiction in years.
Despite all this, Centurion‘s less stylised, more visceral portrayal of ancient warfare is by far the most striking feature of the film. In this simple fact lies Centurion’s greatest weakness, and greatest strength. The gore is fantastic, there is no doubt of that. Yet for a film that seems to beg audiences to take it seriously, there are far too many lethal groin injuries and other such outrageous deaths. In the first scene, the Romans are literally caught with their pants down, and pay for it with a few well aimed javelins. The warrior’s death clearly isn’t always dignified.
Furthermore, I cannot recall a recent film with anywhere near the amount of graphic decapitations that Centurion boasts. Those Picts would give even the Predator a run for his money. Yet all this hyperbolic, excessive gore, coupled with the average script leave Centurion feeling unbalanced. That cosy ‘brothers in arms’ comradeship just doesn’t shine through, despite the best efforts of such a decent cast. This downfall is partially due to Centurion walking a fine line between action flick and realistic historic fiction, but primarily the bland, uninspiring script is to blame. Rest assured that Fassbender and West put effort into their performances. Oh, it’s easy to see how hard they tried, despite those tedious lines of drawl. Kurylenko definitely drew the short straw, but at least as a mute Pict she was spared the above mentioned nightmarish dialogue.
Centurion has some dire flaws, but it’s saved by its action oriented momentum, stunning scenery and attention to historic detail. Overall, the film flows with kinetic beauty. The pace never lets up, and the film has a few amazing scenes to wow audiences. Blatantly unpretentious, Centurion has a lot to offer viewers willing to overlook a handful of underdeveloped elements.
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