Fantasia 2010: CENTURION Review

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Fantasia 2010:  CENTURION Review
[Oh, Neil Marshall, we love you so.  Since Centurion is playing the big Hall Theatre today at the Fantasia Film Festival, it is apropos to bring up Todd's thoughts on the film from our archives.]

Put aside any thoughts of typical costume epics here. Neil Marshall's Centurion will stomach none of that Gladiator talk. A world away from your typical ancient Rome film, this is lean and hungry stuff, as efficient in its story telling as in its brutality. If Ridley Scott cast Russell Crowe to be the new coming of Charlton Heston then what Marshall has done here is make Michael Fassbender into Steve McQueen - a taciturn, seventies style reluctant hero on the run for survival in a world where all the moral lines have blurred out to gray.

Fassbender is Quintus Dias, second in command of the most northerly Roman garrison of the long, protracted war to conquer Britain. It is not going well. It has been going not well for many, many years. It is going so not well, in fact, that the garrison is overrun by Pictish warriors who kill everyone present and burn it to the ground, sparing only Dias' life when he swears at one of them in their own language. Thinking he may be useful, they take him prisoner and haul him off to their own stronghold as prisoner.

The destruction of the garrison proves the last straw for the local governor who decides to put an end to things once and for all. He sends his strongest legion, the 9th, into the far north in a show of strength to subdue the natives, sending a trusted - and beautiful - native guide with them. They save Dias - good thing - but end up slaughtered themselves when their guide proves to be a traitor embedded in their culture for years to gain their trust and lure them to their death. Only a small handful survive. But, trapped this deep behind enemy lines, how much is that survival worth? And so begins a lengthy race for survival.

Shot in a cold, sparse style clearly meant to mimic the hostile beauty of the natural landscape that Marshall uses to such great effect, Centurion takes a small band of stellar actors - Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko and David Morrissey are all hugely charismatic, though Noel Clarke seems weirdly out of place in this time period - and breaks them down to their most basic components. The entire film is fight or flight, nothing more. Fight and kill when you have to, run away if you think you can escape. Marshall throws you into it immediately, he makes the stakes clearly apparent right from the beginning, and he keeps the pressure on right until the very end. This is bloody, desperate stuff.

The question here is whether fight or flight is enough to make a movie. Marshall's got more than enough technical chops to pull off his set pieces and his cast wear the skins of their characters with total comfort but is there enough story, enough connecting tissue to pull a string of very strong moments into a cohesive whole? At what point does lean become starved? I would say yes, there is enough there, but just barely. In the story department, Centurion is feeling a little bit gaunt with just enough in play to keep the audience invested and caring about Dias and his small band of men.

What is interesting is whether Marshall really thinks we should care about these men. Because on that point he is deliberately murky and there are clear parallels to be drawn here between the scenario Marshall paints of Roman occupied Scotland and the current situation in the middle east. Think about it. Occupying army of vastly superior numbers and wealth stymied by a local population poorly equipped but fierce and employing guerrilla tactics to harry and disorient. A long term spy embedded within the Roman's own ranks to gain their trust and learn their ways and destroy them from within. Sound familiar? Because if you're willing to draw that comparison then Marshall has some hard things to say about the nature of military occupation. Are the Picts nasty, brutal people? Absolutely. But their leader was nothing but a farmer until Roman soldiers killed his wife to make a point. And the traitorous guide? The survivor of a slaughtered village who watched her mother raped before being raped herself and having her tongue cut out. To a great degree the Picts are a problem that the Romans brought upon themselves, or at least a problem that they made far worse than it had to be. On the Roman side, not a lot of nobility to be found. In their quest to gain ground they are unpleasantly prone to turn on one another.

Whether a specific comment on a specific scenario or a more general condemnation of warfare, there is no doubt that Marshall here is picturing a world where there really isn't a good side or a bad side. There is only life and death and a lot of ground to cover without being noticed if one isn't going to be forcibly and violently turned into the other.
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