[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.
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
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.
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
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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