Movies set in the distant past frequently end up being about present day people living in the time when the movie is set. This makes it easier for the audience to identify with the characters. The attitudes and beliefs of a mediaeval knight, or a Civil War soldier, or an ancient Roman, are pretty far removed from those of 21st Century Americans. Movies set in the past can also tell a modern story, but dressed up in period costume, making a familiar story fresh, and giving it a different spin. And so it is with Centurion, which takes a story familiar to a modern audience, and transports it to 2nd Century Britain, with surprisingly good results.
Directed by Neil Marshall, Centurion tells the story of Centurion Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender), the sole survivor of a Roman outpost overrun by the Picts. The year is 117 AD, and the Romans have been bogged down for years in a futile attempt to conquer the Picts in the face of a guerilla resistance led by the Pictish King Gorlacon. (Ulrich Thomsen) As Dias explains it, “This is a new kind of war, without end and without honor”. And any resemblance to Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan is purely intentional.
With the Roman suffering endless losses to disease, the harsh climate, and Gorlacon’s raids, the scheming Roman governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) commits the 9th Legion, commanded by General Titus Flavius Virilius (Dominic West) to an operation aimed at killing or capturing Gorlacon. Virilius is a highly regarded commander (One of his men says of him “He’s a ruthless, reckless bastard, and I’d die for him without hesitation”), but the plan goes disastrously wrong. While marching into Pictish territory, the 9th finds and rescues Centurion Dias, but is soon lured into a devastating ambush and wiped out almost to the last man. The rest of the movie consists of Dias leading a handful of survivors in a desperate attempt to rescue the captured Virilius, and then make their way back to Roman territory, all the while being hunted and stalked by vengeful Picts.
For director Neil Marshall, this is familiar territory. It’s not the first time he has made movies about characters struggling to survive in desperate situations tinged with elements of the fantastic. Dog Soldiers had a British Army squad on maneuvers in present day Scotland, surrounded and under attack by werewolves. The Descent, one of the most visceral horror movies of recent years featured a group of female spelunkers trapped in a cave, being hunted down by carnivorous humanoids.
There are no science fiction or fantasy elements in Centurion. The only elements of the fantastic are the stark beauty of the Scottish countryside, and the almost alien menace of the Picts, with their garish war paint. (Marshall has them speaking in Gaelic with English subtitles) Instead of werewolves or humanoids, Marshall brings in a feral Pictish scout and tracker named Etain (Former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), whose tongue was cut out by Roman soldiers when she was a child. It’s a rare actress who can successfully carry off an action role, but Kurylenko plays it to the hilt. She comes across as a younger version of Angelina Jolie.
Centurion is a really good looking movie. The Romans wear historically accurate lorica segmentata armor, and carry the gladius and spatha. The spears, however seem to be the lancea used by Roman cavalry and auxiliaries, rather than the heavy pilum of the legionaries. The Scottish scenery is gorgeous. The fight scenes are bloody and brutal. Marshall’s horror roots are on display here. (Reportedly the crew started out with 200 liters of fake blood. It was not enough)
At times the gore is almost over the top, though in fact what edged weapons do to people is not pretty.
Marshall, who also wrote the screenplay, gives Centurion a thoroughly modern feel, with the occasional anachronism creeping in. At one point a Roman soldier complains “I thought this was my last tour”. (To which one of his fellows quips “It still could be”.) The Romans themselves are the sort of diverse group one might expect to find in a modern war story. One of them is Greek, one is from the Hindu Kush, and one is Numidian. (The 9th Legion may be more racially integrated than the real Roman army. )Another modern touch is that Marshall treats the troops up at the sharp end sympathetically, even if they fight for corrupt and mendacious leaders in an unjust and hopeless cause.
Centurion has a strong cast. It helps that this movie was shot in England. Marshall was free to cast actors who look like men, rather than the pretty little boys that Hollywood seems to favor these days. (Dave Legeno, who plays Vortix, used to fight professionally) Dominic West plays Virilius with a combination of swagger and intelligence. Liam Cunningham, in the role of an aging Roman veteran, is magnetic. When he’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off him. Michael Fassbender hits the right note of grit and stoicism. He’s a leading man your reviewer hopes to see more of.
Sam McCurdy’s beautiful cinematography, the amazing Scottish locations, and Keith Madden’s outstanding costumes give Centurion an almost epic feel. Neil Marshall didn’t have a huge budget for this movie, but he made it look at as if he did. Every penney is up there on the screen, and the end result is more entertaining than lots of movies that probably cost a lot more. In the end, Centurion can’t be taken too seriously as history, but as an action flick it delivers.