Today: February 28, 2024

Centurion Cinema

Films like Gladiator and 300 have shown that legendary
tales of swords and soldiers can make for great visual feasts but,
whereas both of these films operated on a blockbuster scale, Centurion takes things back to basics, with a small budget and cast. The question is: will we still be entertained?

The opening text informs that this film is set in AD 117 and that the
Roman Empire at this time stretches from Egypt to Spain, and East as
far as the Black Sea. There is, however, a resistance in Northern
Britain, as savage tribes known as the Picts use guerrilla tactics to
hold off the Roman invasion. Quintus (Fassbender), the sole survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman frontier fort, marches north with General Virilus’ (West)
legendary Ninth Legion, with orders to wipe out the tribes. However,
when the soldiers are ambushed, they soon find themselves deep behind
enemy lines with a relentless group of Pict pursuers tracking them as
they desperately try to make their way back to the safety of the Roman

This is the fourth feature-length film from writer-director Neil Marshall
and, although its historical nature will make many assume that he is
working outside of his comfort zone, his trademark brand of gritty
violence and gore is splashed all over this Roman canvas. With battles
played out in a series of blood-splattering showdowns, we bear witness
to many horrifying deaths: limbs are severed, bodies are decapitated
and, in one grotesque close-up, half a face is chopped off. To
Marshall’s following, these are the best parts but, for a tale which is
supposedly about conquest and invasion, the end result is perhaps far
bloodier than needed.

However, this is a film which unashamedly puts entertainment above painstaking historical accuracy,
a fact which is apparent from the immediately obvious anachronisms that
pop up throughout the film. The fact that everyone in onscreen, whether
they are Roman soldiers or Pict warriors, speaks with a British accent
will have historians pounding their heads against the wall, not to
mention that Noel Clarke’s involvement as a fellow centurion
raises racial questions which are never addressed in the film. This is
very much, then, a modern re-telling of a legend, so modern, in fact,
that the banter between the soldiers could have been lifted directly
from an early Guy Ritchie film.

The film is all the more accessible for it though and, as the Ninth
Legion struggles to stay on their feet during the treacherous trek along
snow-drenched mountains, the few moments of affecting camaraderie
provide a welcome contrast to the otherwise stark story. Fassbender, in
particular, convinces as the honourable hero forced to take charge of
the troops, providing the moral anchor in a story riddled with savagery
and corruption.

While the rest of the male actors do little more than make up the
numbers, there will no doubt be criticism aimed at the casting of
Kurylenko as Pict tracker Etain, an almost-feral tribeswoman who is
eerily mute as a result of a Roman soldier raping her as a child and
then cutting out her tongue. While her character’s story lends added
weight to the hostility between the two sides, this former Bond girl
is really too much of a waif to be taken seriously as a deadly warrior,
continuing Hollywood’s preference for Knightley-a-like female fighters.

Again, though, this is a film that relies on thrilling its audience
rather than educating it and, between the buckets of gore and the
majestic sweeping shots of the Caledonian regions (which manage to
recall the New Zealand landscape in the Lord of the Rings),
Marshall provides an entertaining, if flawed, account of the Ninth
Legion. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the forthcoming Eagle of the Ninth tells the same story with a far bigger budget when it comes to cinemas in September.

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