Movie Review: Centurion

Released UK - April 23 2010; UK distribution by Pathé
director Neil Marshall; running time 97 minutes; Rated 15; Currently available on DVD from amazon.co.uk

Since seeing the trailers on TV back in March, Centurion was one movie I was really looking forward to watching on the big screen - me being a big 'British history buff' and all that. However, I was to be disappointed once again, as Pathé in all its wisdom decided to show it in just two North West cinemas - Manchester and Liverpool - for just two days each. Now I ask you, where is the logic in that? So yet again your poor editor had to wait another couple of months for the movie to be released on DVD.
The recent revival of what the trendy Fleet Street movie reviewers refer to as "the sword and sandal genre" has given us a plethora of recent Hollywood movies like 300, Clash of the Titans and the forthcoming Prince of Persia. So it’s about time the Brits had a go (as the late JT would say), and this interesting movie from Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall may go on to spawn a series of home-grown epic movies - or maybe not?
Set in Roman occupied Britain, Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the sole survivor of a brutal invasion by the Scottish Picts. He joins the legendary ‘Ninth Legion’ as they set out to avenge their comrades killed by the Picts and is given orders to take his men into Pictish territory (in what is now Scotland) and finally bring an end to the long-running war between Rome and the Picts.
Rome has had its sights set on Britain, but the Picts, a native people who use the terrain and bows and arrows to their advantage, have long stood in their way. The Picts don’t mess around. This was a time when women were drafted into the military as long as they could wield a bow and arrow, and the most dangerous among the Picts are definitely their women.
The Ninth Legion is led into a trap and engages in an epic and devastating battle with the Picts, resulting in extensive casualties. Only seven soldiers remain alive, and General Virilus has been captured by the Picts. The remaining men, led by Quintus Dias, endeavour to rescue their esteemed General, fighting Picts, the elements, and betrayal along the way. Quintus struggles to survive with a decreasing army of soldiers, and the race begins as they try to outrun the Picts and return south of the border to what is now England.
Movie fans may recognize Marshall as the director of one of the most important horror films of the last decade – The Descent. Don’t expect anything like that here. Centurion is a bloody historical action movie based on the legend of the 9th Legion. Marshall takes the question mark of that legend and weaves a tale all his own, forming his own history while integrating historical facts. As a viewer, you don’t question that this is a “what if” scenario, and Marshall does a great job of bringing you into his fiction.
With a pretty bare plot Centurion is basically a series of fight sequences, alongside some beautiful shots of Scottish highlands scenery. There are some very brutal and gruesome deaths (a kill via a soldiers' groin in the opening fight sets the tone early on!). What’s disappointing about Centurion is that there’s not much originality to be found anywhere, but as a genre piece it’s a perfectly enjoyable watch. There are some basic plot details that almost get mislaid in the fast paced edit, so you do need to pay close attention at all times to keep track of the details and who’s who.
Fassbender excels, and the rest of the cast are great as well. The strong British accents are a little off-putting, (obviously we can accept the fact that they are speaking in English) but it might have been better for them to attempt some sort of an accent. As I mentioned earlier some of the most aggressive Pict fighters are women which is quite interesting, as it’s unusual to see such strong female warriors on screen and they are very convincing as such.
However there’s also the usual love interest plot, as Quintus falls for a white witch (no, not Mrs Harrington!) cast out by the rebels. This subplot feels like it was tacked on at the last minute and doesn’t really flow with the rest of the action scenes, but it doesn’t mar the film.

Centurion movie still

And that leads me to the real issue: the editing. There is an insane amount of quick-cutting during the action scenes making it impossible to determine what is actually going on. You can’t tell who is fighting whom and what side they are on. At first, I thought this may have been a pedestrian complaint, but several other people at the screening echoed similar complaints.
Michael Fassbender is bland as Quintus Dias. He starts strong, but the longer he’s on screen the more he comes across empty. There’s not an ounce of personality in his performance and he could easily be replaced with another actor. None of the performances shine outside of Olga Kurylenko and the beautiful and unfortunately-named Imogen Poots. Kurylenko’s Etain is a bloodthirsty, mute Pict who has to carry an entire performance without being able to speak (due to the Romans cutting out her tongue!). It’s a heavy load, but she carries it effectively. Poots’ Arian is given little to do with a tedious little story line, but manages to make it work. You may remember Poots as the little girl from 28 Weeks Later. She’s hardly little anymore.
As horror fans, you’ll be pleased by the brutal kills and gracious amounts of blood, but some may be bored with subplots. Another bothersome quality is that the Romans speak with muted British accents, and the Picts, who lived in what is now Scotland, speak some kind of Gaelic with subtitles. Marshall stated in the Q & A after the screening that he wanted to make this a real period piece and exclude any weapons, costumes, make-up, et al. that wouldn’t be around during that time. Why, then, is Fassbender chewing gum in one of the first scenes? And why do all the soldiers use modern day profanity? If you want to know what to expect on a small scale before walking into Centurion, Eric Snider has a funny list over at Cinematical.
Centurion is a great take on an old legend, but suffers from poor editing choices and wearisome acting. Perhaps my high expectations nullified most of the enjoyment I could have taken from it. Overall, Centurion is a decent movie, but left me feeling tepid. Whilst it lacks the spectacle of Hollywood big budget explosions and battle scenes, it is still an enthralling and action packed film, and definitely worth a viewing, even though it will have to be via DVD now!

Reviewed by: Mark Cotterill, Preston, Lancashire

 

Centurion movie still

This review first appeared in the July-September 2010 issue of Heritage and Destiny (Issue 41). You can buy single back issues of H&D for £4.00, while an annual subscription (four issues) costs just £20.00. Visit the Heritage and Destiny page here for more details and to place an order.