I know what you’re thinking; ‘2010? Surely that’s a good five decades out of your usual range!’ Yes, I tend to like reviewing older films but I do modern ones as well sometimes. Besides, this looked like it had potential and I always like to check out Roman films. Starring Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko, Dominic West and Liam Cunningham, this was made by Brit director Neil Marshal (who most of us will only know from Dog Soldiers). Unfortunately, Centurion is not in the same league as Marshal’s earlier work. There are some good performances and some interesting ideas, but for the most part it comes across as a dingy, gore-for-its-own-sake sort of film.
The story is another take on the disappearance of the Legio IX Hispana which was stationed in Britain and disappears from records in 120AD. Roughly inspired, though certainly not based on, the theory in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth, it follows the notion of the legion being attacked in northern Britain by an uprising of tribes.
The film begins with Centurion Quintus Dias (Fassbender) being captured and tortured by Britons after his outpost is attacked. He escapes, and manages to find the advancing Ninth Legion who are on their way to subdue the Picts. The legion is ambushed on the march, having been betrayed by their ‘Brigante’ scout Etain (Kurylenko), and only a small handful survive, including Quintus. Whether Etain genuinely was Brigante or whether she was a masquerading Pict is left ambiguous so I’ll forgive them calling her Brigante at the start and a Pict near the end. The Legion Legate General Virilus (West) is taken alive and the little group of soldiers, including Liam Cunningham’s character, Brick, decide to attempt a rescue.
Right, now to review. The ending is one of my issues so I’ll put in spoiler alerts before that – if you see it and you want to avoid, skip to the next paragraph. This was a film that really should have been good but wasn’t, and it’s not even that obvious why. There are plenty of flaws in it of course, but then there are flaws in other films that are good overall. We’ll take a look at some of that below but I think the main problem was that it should have been gripping and it just never really managed it.
One little but obvious problem is that the writing at the start looks like it’s white against a background of white mountains, and in pretty small text. Superficial flaw I know, but it doesn’t fill you with confidence. The whole film is lit with a deliberately grim and cold light and while I get what they were aiming for, the lack of any real change is tiring and gives the film a slightly monotonous feel.
Sort of connected to that is the fact that it tries way too hard to be gritty and shocking, and just winds up being pointlessly gory. After the first bit of blood splatter you’re pretty well immunised to its effect, in my case just shrugging and thinking ‘oh, so it’s that sort of film.’
There are a few other little drawbacks along the way but my only big issue with it was that the ending made no sense (minor spoiler – it’s not worth waiting for but skip if you want). The logic is that the Roman Governor is killing off Quintus to cover up the massacre of the Ninth Legion because it could cause him embarrassment in Rome. But what about all the soldiers who saw them go and never saw them come back? What about the requests for a legion’s worth of pay suddenly stopping? What about the friends and families of the officers, who in the Legate’s case would have been fairly prominent people? There is no way to cover up a legion disappearing, and is an unexplained vanishing really that much better-sounding than a report that says they were ambushed? He can pin the blame on a careless general and talk his way clear, something he can’t do when word of this missing legion is inevitably reported to his superiors. It just struck me as a serious plot hole and a pretty rubbish excuse for the mystery (and an obvious ploy to undermine Romans in general and drive Quintus back to his girl).
A last, and fairly minor, issue is that a hefty amount of the first act is almost carbon copied from The Last of the Mohicans. I know that there are allegedly only seven stories in the world or something, but sometimes things can be really close. Etain, a villain for whom we have a grain of sympathy, has lost everything at the hands of the conquering Romans. She feigns being a guide from a friendly tribe and then leads Roman soldiers into a trap in the woods, revealing that she is in fact part of a warlike, antagonistic tribe, and she then spends the rest of the film trying to kill the few survivors. You know; completely unlike Magua; a villain for whom we have a grain of sympathy because he’s lost everything at the hands of the conquering English, who then feigns being a guide from a friendly tribe and leads English soldiers into a trap in the woods, revealing that he is in fact part of a warlike, antagonistic tribe, and spending the rest of the film trying to kill the few survivors…
As far as historical realism there is some artistic licence (making Pictish sound like Gaelic when it should sound more like Welsh was a grievous sin from my point of view, but at least they admit their fault in the special features), but for the most part it has a believable look to it.
No matter how bad the film, it failed to make bad actors of the main cast, and Fassbender made the most of what he was given as did Kurylenko and West. Cunningham was, as ever, good value for money, and I did love his ‘Roman Geordie’. The man is Irish but when not using his own voice or putting on a posh English one, he does seem fond of a Geordie accent.
There were some good moments in the film – the part where a man is left for the wolves is very memorable – but overall I have to say I was disappointed. It had a great deal of potential with a good story concept, a good cast, and a proven director behind it, but fell victim to the infamous ‘Van Helsing Syndrome’, whereby all those things somehow don’t combine to make a good film and at best it becomes a watchable guilty pleasure.