Tis the season for historical epics. After the car crash that was Clash Of The Titans comes another sandal-wearing, gladius-wielding movie, but thankfully Centurion keeps its feet on the ground and its finger on the pulse.
The centurion in question is Quintas Dias (Fassbender) stationed to guard the northern most frontier of the Roman Empire in Britain. His stockade is constantly raided by the indomitable native Picts who are using guerilla tactics to harass the Roman garrison.
Worried that this is becoming a severe drain on the resources and frustrated that they can’t pacify apparent savages, his leaders recruit Etain (Olga Kurylenko) a mute Pict huntress who will lead the Ninth Legion on a last ditch assault on the enemy encampment.
Needless to say it all goes a bit wrong and General Villius (Dominic West) ends up being captured in an ambush that wipes out most of the legion. It’s therefore up to Quintus and a rag tag band of survivors to rescue the General and escape back to camp with their lives.
Michael Fassbender is fast carving a name for himself for being reliably versatile actor in every film he’s in, whether as morally ambiguous rogue (Fishtank) or Nazi killing solider (Inglourious Basterds). Centurion is no exception as Fassbender plays Quintus as a competent and tough survivor – a smart, confident career solider who’s got through by being tough and doing necessary but unpleasant tasks.
At no point do you see him grandstanding or spoiling for fights. This is a film very much grounded in the realism of battle – marching is hard work, skirmishes are brutal, death is unpleasant.
Olga Kurylenko manages to invest the seemingly infallible, mute tracker Etain with enough snake-eyed menace that words would only detract from her spite.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the supporting cast who resemble a kind of United Nations Magnificent Seven. There’s the black one (Noel Clarke – sounding oddly Saaf Laandan for Roman solider), the Asian one (Riz Ahmed – a cook oddly proficient at hurling meat cleavers), the Greek one, the gruff one, the old one and the untrustworthy one.
It’s at its worst when it falls into the trap of telling you rather than showing a character’s motivations – “first sign of trouble and I’m off” says one of the group. You might as well have him holding a sign that says, “I am an untrustworthy character”.
Centurion is shot beautifully – everything has a washed out look which serves to emphasise the cold and bleak terrain; every move the squad makes looks like an effort and you can practically smell the mud which cakes everything.
Battle scenes are appropriately exciting but you might have to have a strong stomach to withstand the amount of gouging and hacked limbs. This being a Neil Marshall film, it has its fair share of gore but it never feels excessive; violence is used to underscore the brutality of battle, not to revel in it.
Centurion isn’t Marshall’s best (that honour goes to the fantastic claustrophobic horror The Descent) but it’s a refreshing take on increasingly familiar subject matter and you should see this over Clash of The Titans any day.