Director / Writer: Neil Marshall / Editing: Chris Gill / DP: Sam McCurdy
Cast: Michael Fassbender / Olga Kurylenko / Dominic West / JJ Feild / Lee Ross / David Morrissey / Paul Freeman / Liam Cunningham / Noel Clarke / Riz Ahmed / Imogen Poots
When Two Tribes Go To War…
British Director Neil Marshall (‘NM’) cut his teeth during the late Nineties / early Noughties on a sequence of low budget horror-chillers, that included such under-rated gems as Dog Soldiers and The Descent, but Centurion marked a step-change to a bigger and (slightly) starrier cast, thanks to a more ambitious budget.
Chief among the names, was an ascendant Michael Fassbender (at this stage, still ‘cheap’). Oh, and Olga Kurylenko, who was trying to right her career after the bitterly underwhelming Quantum of Solace. In support, a squad of swarthy Brits, all game for the trials NM had in mind.
To keep things simple and stay focused, NM would write a nuts and bolts action-chaser, in which his cast would be whittled away, ‘till there was one left standing: no prizes for guessing who that was going to be. I can see the benefits in such an approach: NM knew his audience (teenage boys & lads back from the pub) so there was no point in writing worthy monologues or having characters tormented by inner demons (they’re never exterior, are they?). Besides, that would just slow down the requisite slate of thrills, spills and good-to-honest violence: and that’s pretty much what’s on – and in – this tin. But is there anything more?
NM kicks things off with a nice (read: expensive) helicopter shot of a crystal-white snowfield (as seen a few films ago in Eureka), over which a topless, bound and injured Quintus Dias ((‘QD’) Fassbender, suffering for his Director), runs as though his life depends on it. In a voice-over as sparse as the terrain, he tells us all we need to know: his name. That he’s in ‘The Arsehole of the World’. That Rome finds itself in ‘A new kind of war. A war without honour. A war without end.’ NM might’ve been commentating on the West’s never-ending ‘War On Terror’ here, which does nothing to lift the mood.
Cut to: The large Roman camp at York and the home of the fabled Ninth Legion, commanded by General Virilus (‘GV’) who’s none other than the ever-reliable Dominic West, in a confident performance that seemed to say ‘anything James Purefoy can do, I can do better’. So we get a kinetic bar-brawl, triggered by a sore loser in an arm-wrestling contest: great stuff that NM delights in slathering with claret. Just as QD’s opening scrap set the tone for the picture’s graphic approach to close-quarter violence with sharp blades, so it is here. As I said: NM knew his audience.
Let’s move on: there’s work to be done. Governor Agricola (The under-used Paul Freeman) wants to return to Rome and to do that, he needs GV to kill Gorlacon, a Pictish tribal leader, who’s guerrilla tactics are wreaking havoc on an organised army, used to meeting other, organised armies: echoing what QD’s already told us. To seal the deal, Agricola has a slave try to assassinate him, but he’s cut-short (ahem) by Etaine, his mute ‘Brigantese Tracker’. Given this movie serves as Olga Kurylenko’s professional rehab following ‘Bond, she appears suitably chastened in a woady-mix of sackcloth and furs, with a lump of plaster smothering her fringe (why is never explained, though I suspect it’s got something to do with her being a Pict).
Anyhow, GV’s as turned-on by this unruly vision as he is impressed and returns to camp to get things moving. This is where we meet the first members of what will be a (short-lived) core of the movie: Brick (Liam Cunningham, who’d go from this to Game of Thrones) and Bothos (the ever-droll David Morrissey).
A tight set-up, then. Things are rattling along plot-wise, even if character development has been left in a siding. Can’t say it’s not enjoyable though and higher gears start meshing when GV’s column encounters the half-naked QD, who’s about to be nobbled for good. With his pursuers duly despatched by the cavalry (arriving in the nick of time, as-per), QD brings GV up-to-speed and in exchange, is given a spare uniform (handy) and accepted at the rank he claims, without question (handier, still). That night, as he’s eating with the men, one of them – Thax (JJ Feild) – says of the General: ‘He’s a ruthless, reckless bastard and I’d die for him without hesitation’. Remember that line, pop-pickers…
Their march continues, into a bleak Scottish winter that DoP Sam McMurdy captures brilliantly, I have to say. I got a real chill from watching his stark, bleached-out landscapes. Yes, there was too much smoke on occasion, but no matter. This DoP isn’t Jack Cardiff on a David Lean picture, so improvisations have to sit within the budget, but I think he does well… To better explain my appreciation, consider the ambush of the column as it moves through a steep-sided gully, down into which, roll burning ‘balls’ of straw (?). The reality of the budget, meant compromises on the size of the physical stunt, so NM had just a few balls tumbling-down onto half-a-dozen fire-proofed stuntmen, whose performances were then multiplied via CGI and lots of in-camera coverage.
The look of the scene is great, with these bright red-orange fireballs lighting up a dank and muddy gully. As NM alluded to, this was his homage to Kubrick’s use of burning logs in Spartacus. I’d go further and cite the opening of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in particular its opening battle in ‘Germania’, as another visual influence. However, unlike Scott, NM keeps his camera static here, using no handheld or Steadicam (as far as I can tell). Instead, he uses fast-cuts (seamlessly pulled together by Editor Chris Gill) to build the scene’s energy; besides, we’re too busy watching yet more spouting gouts of blood, to care/realise. Once again, action verges on contemporary horror levels of gore, sparing few details. One memorable sight, was that of a joyous female Pict holding up a head she’s just liberated from its neck. Ouch…
This seals Act One and opens-up the rest of the picture, into a straight rescue / chase plot. Why? Because those dastardly Picts have captured GV… So Dias finds himself leading seven tough bastards to get him back… They’re the only survivors of the entire Legion and whilst there might only be seven of them, they’re certainly not Magnificent. Nor are they Samurai, if their various self-interests are taken into account. Mind you, I did laugh when I heard Riz Ahmed’s Tarak utter this: ‘I’m not a solider. I’m a cook,’, echoing Steven Seagal’s immortal tagline from Under Siege; ah, life was so uncomplicated back in ‘92.
There are wrinkles of course. The first, when Thax sparks An Unfortunate Event during their botched rescue attempt and the second, when the group fail to grant a merciful end to their General, to prevent him suffering further. That they don’t even think this, is an important omission of NM’s, as it’s what they would have done, had it been real and not a movie… But it is a movie, so they leave him to it: the ‘it’ turning out to be a skewering by Etaine who, turns out, had always been true to her Pictish brethren and had only worked for her enemy as a means of gathering intelligence; clever, though it begs the question why Agricola had never thought to query the significance of her particular hairstyle? Maybe he thought that’s what the girls were wearing up-North these days…
That’s the rescue bit done, so now we’re onto the chase and what follows, is so ‘Tab A into Slot B’ that I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say, that we get a long-awaited respite from the picture’s dour grit, when QD and just two companions (to that point, attrition had been unrelenting) reach a homely, though ramshackle, err, shack, lived-in by Arianne, a witchy-outcast. She represents what little love interest this picture has, but we’re in the sober 2010’s now, so no exploitative T+A. Instead, the luminous Imogen Poots (in a small, but revitalising role) remains defiantly clad throughout. In this picture, the sympathetic female lead is seemingly content with her banishment; for one thing, it means she doesn’t have to live with a lump of plaster on her head. For another, as she puts it: ‘I owe allegiance to no man, but whom I choose’. Now that’s right-on for 115AD!
It’s a movie, Mister Gee. A movie. It’s not real. It’s Not Real. Okay. Breathe.
So Arianne fixes Bothos’ leg, feeds them mushroom broth and even hides them with Etaine comes calling, sending them on their way with a heartfelt look to Fassbender, thus proving she’s no witch, but all-too human, after all.
Now refreshed on those magic mushrooms, the trio reach another abandoned fort, have another scrap and lose another man: this time Brick, though QD DOES kill Etaine at the end of a satisfying grudge match. Now a duo, QD and Bothos head South, soon picking-up Thax to become a trio once again. A few hundred miles further South (despatched by movie magic) they reach an under-construction Hadrian’s Wall. Remember Thax’s Significant Line from earlier? Of course you do. Well, it comes into play here, as we always knew it would. I’ll remind you: ‘He’s a ruthless, reckless bastard’. Hmm, well that turns out to be a succinct account of his own character. As a result, there’s another Unfortunate Event (and one NOT so unfortunate) and the film ends with Dias reuniting with Arianne thus: ‘Seems my life is in your hands again, witch’. Ahhh. And they say the Age of Chivalry’s dead…
Conclusions? I think technical departments excelled themselves with the budgets they had. Casting was largely spot-on, although I remain unconvinced by having Kurylenko a mute; with her exotic accent, NM could’ve written a larger backstory for her character, giving her a channel with which to vocalise her rage. As it is, her thin character serves a laser-guided plot and little else; I’m not convinced it was the right way to go and it brings me to my largest criticism of the film: its characters (or lack of…).
Even characters with tongues in their mouths, are given little chance to widen our appreciation of their plight. This near-absence of empathy damages the picture, because we end up rooting for no-one; characters might as well be cardboard cut-outs for all their depth.
The movie clocks-in at ninety-seven minutes, yet I’m sure audiences wouldn’t have begrudged a few extra, sprinkled here and there, in which to build our empathy towards these guys. Isn’t that the point of a feature like this: to tell a story? With characters who we root for? Without it, there’s no point in watching. Violence for its own sake? Well, that’s just mindless, isn’t it? I repeat: NM knew his audience.
Then again, if he’d offered something with more depth, that challenged the status quo, he might’ve attracted an altogether more sophisticated crowd, that might’ve stuck with him through a series of ever more ambitious projects: a lesson that Christopher Nolan appears to have taken to heart.
Her soul’s an empty vessel. Only Roman blood can fill it.