Film Review – Centurion
After directing one of the most entertaining horror films of the last decade (The Descent), Neil Marshall was added to the list of directors I wanted to keep my eyes on. It seemed inevitable that he would get plenty of opportunities in Hollywood after the success of that film. That opportunity came in the form of Doomsday, and while that film was a feast for the eyes, it was too unbalanced to really enjoy. Thankfully, it seems that Marshall has returned to his roots and stepped back from the world of polished Hollywood films, and once again made a gritty genre film that leaves you thinking.
Centurion is the story of Roman centurion Quintus Dias (played by Michael Fassbender), who must lead a band of soldiers back to safety after their legion is decimated in Scotland Highlands by the Pict army—the natives of the region. What follows is an arduous journey through nature that is made that much more challenging as a pack of Pict soldiers relentless hunts them.
It is funny to watch this film about a year after it was first released, since the lead role is given to Michael Fassbender. If you asked me a year ago what I knew about Fassbender, it probably would’ve been a short conversation. But in the last twelve months, he has quickly become one of the most sought-after actors, and it is entirely understandable why. There is no sense of Hollywood stardom on him, and this can be seen by his willingness to get down in the dirt to embrace the roles he is given…in this case, he literally gets down in the dirt.
Going into this movie I didn’t really have a sense of what the story was about, and that ended up being one of the more enjoyable elements of it. I’ve always been interested in the history of the Roman Empire, and in particular the Roman conflicts are fascinating, since the Scottish Highlands were one of the few regions that the Romans were unable to conquer.
One of the film’s more surprising performances comes from Olga Kyrlenko. You may know her as the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace—i.e. the Bond girl who didn’t actually sleep with James Bond. She plays a mute tracker, who leads the Romans into the northern territory and is haunted by demons over the death of her family. She is given more to chew on in this film than in Quantum of Solace, where she is mostly used for her good looks, and coming from that film she is almost unrecognizable. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had seen her name in the credits, I might have not noticed it was the same actress.
Additionally, I was please to see Dominic West in the movie. I’ve been a huge fan of him since he played Jimmy McNulty on The Wire. Unfortunately, much like Olga Kyrlenko, he hasn’t had many good opportunities cinematically, including forgettable roles in films such as 300 and Punisher: War Zone. In Centurion, he plays a general in the Roman army who finds himself frequently trapped between doing what Roman orders tell him to do and what he knows is right.
The most important and uncredited star of the film in the landscape. From the barren mountains to the dense forests, the overwhelming terrain is brutal, and you can understand the exhaustion of the Roman soldiers as they battle it as much as they do the Pict army. Marshall takes full advantage with beautiful cinematography from Sam McCurdy, who has worked with Marshall since Dog Soldiers. Right from the beginning you view the scale of everything, as the opening title sequence takes you through so much beautiful scenery that it is difficult to pay attention to the credits as they sweep by.
One of the elements that made me enjoy The Descent was that it left a lot to be interpreted by the audience, and there are similarities in this movie. All of the characters are presented with flaws, and it is hard to truly define each group as “good” or “evil,” though some characters are certainly evil. It is easy to feel for the Roman perspective since they are the ones being hunted, but it is hard not to empathize with the Picts, since they simply want to be left alone…and films like Braveheart have played a major role in our development as film watchers.
Similar to The Descent, the ending leaves room for debate. I’m not sure if this is a franchise Marshall ever interests to return to. He did return to The Descent 2—a film I have not seen—as an executive producer, but I like the world he has created in Centurion. Of all the genre films I’ve seen in the last few years, this one is one of the most solid, and while there is a tad bit of cliché towards the end, Marshall still resists going for the Hollywood ending.
Final Grade: A-