In roughly AD 117, Rome’s 9th Legion disappeared while on the march through Britain. What happened to them has been the subject of much debate and speculation amongst scholars; some assert that they were wiped out by Celtic tribes of Britain, while others believe that they simply disbanded, and still others suggest that they died fighting in Germania or in the East at the hands of the Persians. While we may never know what exactly happened to the Legion, the mystery has proven to be a subject of great intrigue to scholars and storytellers alike, and now Neil Marshal counts himself among their number with Centurion.
Marshal draws his inspiration here from the idea that the Legion were massacred in Britain at the hands of the Picts, a conglomeration of Celtic tribes hailing from Scotland. Of course he makes no claim to historical accuracy; a lesson in history is neither the point nor his interest. Instead, Marshal delivers a smartly constructed and deftly told action film about the aftermath of that supposed slaughter, departing from the epic scale of the historic events and focusing in on a much smaller scale conflict which occurs in their wake. Throughout, politics (those of the Romans as well as our own) are woven into the narrative, providing one of the numerous strata Marshal really concerns himself with.
Centurion‘s primary narrative kicks off after the Legion is butchered by a Pict ambush. Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), a former prisoner of the Picts, leads the remaining members of the Legion through enemy territory in an effort to get home and tell the tale of their brothers in arms. Making things problematic for them are Pict hunting parties, and most of all the presence of tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko), who appears to be an avatar of vengeance out to shed as much Roman blood as possible. As predator closes in on prey, Quintus struggles with his duty to his men and his own disillusionment over the senselessness of their situation in the face of dangers both human and natural.
Marshal brings economy to Centurion‘s action. Violence is doled out in spades throughout the film but Marshal knows precisely when to invoke it and for how long before moving on to the next scene. And he knows, better than many, how to organically lead into his action beats and in fact is so excellent at creating tension and a palatable sense of dread through his build up that the moments before the bloodshed are almost as pleasing as the portrayed acts of brutality. Maybe most of all, Marshal doesn’t come off as a violence fetishist; his action is crisp, clean, well-choreographed, and cool, but at the same time we never forget that the purpose lies in the nihilistic cruelty of it all. We’re allowed, of course, to cheer at some of his more memorable kill shots– in a number of ways, both the Picts and the Romans alike appear to have somehow seen every single Friday the 13th movie before all of us– but the question of “why?” feels central to the thrust of every spear and sword.
It’s a question Marshal appears keen to address. The Legion, we learn, mobilizes against the wishes of commander Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West, in a small but gratifying part); men’s lives are lost by the machinations of Roman politicians. And this leads into maybe the most important part of Centurion: Determining the good and the bad in the war between Rome and the Britain natives. In the end, between the endless and self-interested scheming of the political parties and the archaic beliefs and practices of the feral Picts (whose fear of witchcraft leads them to scar and exile members of their own tribes), Marshal appears to empathize with soldiers both Roman and Pict alike, and most of all of Quintus. Fassbender narrates infrequently during some of the film’s quiet moments, ruminating on the unwillingness of “the gods” to risk themselves. He’s clearly referring to the Pantheon but the sentiment applies to the leaders behind both sides of the war (and taken in a modern context the film’s thoughts about why wars are fought and who fights them read like a thinly veiled remark about a certain modern and unpopular war being fought in the Middle East today).
Fassbender himself is the backbone of Centurion, as comfortable swinging his sword into the face of an enemy as he is with wielding his heart and emotion. Quintus Dias, that archetypal noble and jaded warrior searching for something that the battlefield cannot provide him with, reads like a trope but plays totally fresh by virtue of Fassbender’s quiet charisma. Marshal didn’t afford much to any of his characters, but the entire cast seems to have taken this as an opportunity more than anything else. If development is somewhat thin, it’s more than made up for through the interplay of actors that understand the bonds that form amongst soldiers at war. Everyone, from the centurions to the cook that accompanies them, does a great job filling in the blanks and fully realizing their characters. Maybe Liam Cunningham does this best of all as the salty, grizzled, but benevolent old veteran for whom the Britain campaign was to be his last tour. And if you’re wondering, yes, each character in Centurion can be described in so many cliches, but this doesn’t matter for two reasons. First, of course,the performances rise above those cliches; second, Marshal doesn’t care about reinventing the wheel. He’s comfortable working within the parameters of the genre– and he’s smart enough to enlist an able cast of performers to make the most of those boundaries.
Olga Kurylenko, bringing a ferocious animal instinct to her every move, may be Marshal’s most intelligent decision across the whole of Centurion. Etain could end up being the best villain to grace screens this year, a pale and furious beauty more adept at the art of rending the human body asunder than any other warrior we meet in the film. She’s also mute– Romans cut out her tongue while sacking her village– and in this sense Kurylenko is saddled with the most difficult character to realize of the lot, but she emotes her rage and frustration and anguish with such expertise that she makes it look easy, adding up to a terrific and totally unexpected performance.
I think we need more movies like Centurion. Too many directors today are self-conscious about embracing the elements that make genre films what they are and end up taking themselves far too seriously; like Vincenzo Natali in Splice, Marshal isn’t afraid of those conventions and chooses to support them with talented actors to surpass them. Most of all he understands that when working within the parameters of a genre, the best way to keep a film from feeling stale and treading old ground is to simply make a great movie that uses those staple characteristics really, really well and in exciting and engaging ways. Of course, there’s more to Centurion than the sword-and-sandals blood and grit on its surface, but my high-mindedness aside the real reason to see the film lies in its stature as a totally excellent entry in genre filmmaking from one of its best working directors of the day. Marshal has yet to make a bad film; if it’s up to him, that streak will go on for a long time yet, and I couldn’t be happier.