Centurion

15

If you overlook the fact that they dressed in girly skirts, Roman soldiers were quite a tough lot. They managed to swan around Europe on their fancy chariots and that, giving nothing but grief to the locals. Whilst they were sorting out Britainís sewage system, building roads and handing out calendars with a different gladiator hunk for every month, a group of locals were getting fed up with their presence. Itís this part of history that writer/director Neil Marshall uses as the base for his latest film.

Itís AD 117 and the Romans have managed to conquer many great countries. To their annoyance however, a tough and elusive tribe in the far north known as the Picts, are digging in their heels and putting up one hell of a fight.

Quintus (Michael Fassbender) is a centurion from solid Roman stock; his father was one of Romeís greatest gladiators. Unfortunately for him, his garrison in the north falls foul to an attack by the Picts. He manages to survive and retreat to a safer fort, where he teams up with General Virilus (Dominic West) and the infamous Ninth legion.

Centurion
Don't you think I don't mourn the fact that there wasn't enough budget for a little colour too?

With the help of a mute female tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko), they believe they can finally get the better of those pesky Picts. Before they can say Carry on Cleo, theyíre ambushed before they can put their plan into action, with most of their men being wiped out. With the Picts taking Virilus prisoner, Quintus and a handful of other survivors, decide to attempt to free him. But despite building the roads, the one ahead for them is far from being clear of danger.

Even with four films (including this one) under his directing belt, Geordie Neil Marshall doesnít appear to be in any hurry to hit the hills of Hollywood. In doing so, he also proves that talent doesnít need to travel to make a good-looking film.

Possibly due to the use of Roman terminology in the titles, this will invariably be compared to Ridley Scottís bulging-budgeted Gladiator. Scottís so-called epic is a flashy, trashy affair that certainly didnít deserve the five Oscars bestowed upon it in 2001. The story was simply downright ridiculous and Croweís performance was borderline embarrassing. Centurion is far grittier, set within the bleakest of landscapes, making it a far more watchable experience.

Marshall certainly put a good cast together, with Fassbender in particular, proving that he can more than handle the whole sandals and swords scenario. And even with a touch of the Brian Blessed about Westís performance, The Wire star confirms that heís got plenty left in his acting tank.

Where the film falls however, is in its story. Firstly thereís the issue of who exactly to root for. The Romans are clearly seen as the underdogs and therefore are the good guys of the piece, with the Picts being depicted as the villains. From a British perspective only, it feels quietly wrong to be expected to have empathy for a group who wanted to wipe out our ancestors. It would be like watching a war film with the Nazis billed as the heroes and being expecting to cheer them on. It just wouldnít happen. And it just feels wrong here.

Even if one could overlook the history, itís difficult to do the same with the story. It just lacks any sense of originality. On a base level itís a hunters-become-the-hunted tale. But with every story arc heavily sign-posted, it has nothing in the way of surprises.

Despite these failings, Centurion is still difficult to dislike. Its cinematography captures a true harshness of the period, which gives it the kind of authenticity that Gladiator could have only dreamed of.

Marshall also knows how to put on a bloody good sword fight. Blades glide gorgeously through the cold air, resulting in the spurting of blood from various parts of numerous bodies. Itís the perfect equation of gratuity over glamour.

Considering it was made with a budget that someone like (either) Scott would consider pocket change, Marshall has once again confirmed that as far as creativity and talent are concerned, there really is no place like home.

three out of five