What it's about:A Roman centurion leads a group of soldiers back home from behind enemy lines after their legion is decimated by the Picts, the Celtic inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands.
What we thought:
There seems to be no shortage of swords-and-sandals escapism on both the big and small screens. In the ten years since Ridley Scott's beloved Gladiator we've had a mixed bag of followers – King Arthur, The Last Legion, Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ, the impressive TV series Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Rome and, most notably, Zack Snyder's massively popular 300, a film that proved Hollywood could make history sexy and ludicrously entertaining at the same time. Even James Cameron is planning a movie based on Cleopatra starring Angelina Jolie.
Centurion offers a far more gritty take on the era, but is closer in spirit to 300 than it would seem at first. The battles, of which there are many, are brutal, visceral and rather quite gory. This much is to be expected from Neil Marshall, a director best known for his cult gore-fests Dog Soldiers and The Descent – two of the most satisfying and well-rounded horror films this past decade. In Centurion, Marshall, who also wrote the film, gets his teeth into the war themes we're familiar with – brotherhood, betrayal, bravery – while setting up a spectacular cat-and-mouse hunt across the harsh terrain of what is now northern England.
Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who cut his teeth as one of the Spartan heroes in 300, is Centurion Quintus Dias, the son of a Roman gladiator who is taken prisoner by the Picts and is rescued by the Ninth legion led by General Titus Flavius Virilus (played by another 300 alum, Dominic West), whose orders are to eradicate the Pict uprising in the north. Virilus enlists the services of a mute female Celt warrior Etain (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) to help the legion find their way across foreign territory. When the soldiers are attacked in a heavily wooded area, the movie kicks into gear with a scintillating battle sequence that will test even the strongest stomach, but is shot with a beautiful precision that will make it hard to tear your eyes from, even as another piece of brain matter splats onto the camera lens.
As much as the violence elevates Centurion (this was, after all, the way the West was won) it nevertheless lends the movie an almost cartoonish air, as clearly touched up blood splatters all over the grey and misty hinterlands and Marshall finds more spectacular ways in which the human body can be sliced, diced and ground to a pulp. Oh, what sick fun it is.
The cast are all more than capable in their roles and familiar with the material and Marshall doesn't get too bogged down with getting the colloquial language of the era exactly right. Just before their final stand-off with the freakishly effective Pict scouts, Quintus Dias sums up his fate as "f**ked". Marshall is even-handed in his depiction of the Picts, almost in awe of their ability to track their prey, so much so that they even get the William Wallace blue war paint treatment.
But then, no one who walks into a movie cinema should even be expecting historical accuracy. Oliver Stone's dire 2004 film Alexander was warning enough.
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