Anyone who knows a little bit about Roman history knows that the legend of the Ninth Legion stands as one of the most enduring legends from the period: a key indicator, as with any semi-known, magical sounding occurrence from history, is that there are a number of theories that pertain to the disappearance. The reality that it probably never actually disappeared, by the romantically held definitions anyway, is far less glamorous than the mythology, and movies and books like The Eagle of the Ninth and Ghost King haven't let the trivial annoyance of factual accuracy get in the way of a good yarn.
Genre director Neil Marshall, of Dog Soldiers, Doomsday and The Descent takes up the reigns on the latest film to fall for the romantic mythology, Centurion, but thanks to his seemingly blood-thirsty passion for grit and brutal, often stylised violence changes the tone somewhat. It looks incredibly good, but its just a shame that the films tips the balance towards style over substance way too much.Follow the jump for the full review...
The biggest hurdle any historical movie ever has to overcome is its authenticity: somewhat inevitably the first question any such film will answer in the press junket will be to do with some kind of factual error that was viewed by the director as a creative decision, but by some commentators as a betrayal of history. Centurion dispenses with such problems by coming up with a brand new story, taking its reference point as the supposed disappearance of the Ninth Legion during their stay in Britain, and subsequent battles with the fearsome Picts. The script, in a similar move to Gladiator, focuses on one central figure to tell the wider story, though the quests of Maximus are actually quite a distance from those of Michael Fassbender's Quintus Dias.
Inevitably, the film has suffered from accusations that it is merely a reductive excuse to show a historically bloody battle with as much gruesome grit and guts as possible- and at first, before viewing, I thought I might be being treated to the cinematic equivalent of the horrendous violence porn that is Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Okay, so there is a lot of shouting and limb-splitting going on, and the violence, typically of Marshall is occasionally over-stylised to the point of fetishism, but at least there is no betrayal of the film's core values. There is no attempt to offer an exercise in historical accuracy: Marshall wants his audience to enjoy the story as a vehicle for thrills-he is after all a director who wallows gleefully in the genre waters- and what he has created does exactly what it says on the tin. And call me sadistic if you will, I actually enjoy Marshall's particular extra-strength brand of violence.
Sadly, while it is easy to suspend your sense of historical fidelity for the 90 odd minutes, it is very difficult to accept the degree with which character development and back-story have been utterly foregone when you're trying to root for someone on-screen. Even Fassbender's Quintus isn't adequately backed up, so it is difficult to understand the pain Fassbender wears in his eyes like indelibly impressed scars, despite the admiration his technique encourages. The film apparently revels in the fact that it never breaks the surface of any of the characters on show, which is a problem, but then at 94 minutes, and with a quite frenetic pace throughout, perhaps the director decided it would be a compromise too far to add in some establishing flash-backs or meaty conversation.
Fassbender is good as Quintus, offering a gritty stoicism that furnishes his ostensibly familiar action-movie archetype character well, but the lack of substance in his character robs him of some of the tools of the trade that would have made this film great. He does as best as he can with the material though, and can call upon the audience's empathy to make up for their lack of knowledge about him. Had Marshall and Co concentrated on detail, especially in the characters, we might have been talking a four star plus review, which I would love to give the film on the strength of Director of Photography Sam McCurdy's stunning visual work alone. The outdoor scenes are just breathtaking, and he deserves high-praise indeed: I can't help but think that I might not have awarded quite as high a rating were it not for his work.
Elsewhere, the cast encourages mixed reviews- Dominic West matches Fassbender for skill and it is believable that he would be as well-liked as the film suggests, though he too would have been served better by a meatier character. Liam Cunningham and David Morrissey play the everyman fighters well too, and definitely deserves be given more roles (anyone who hasn't seen Morrissey alongside Tom Hardy in Cape Wrath should seek it out). But then there are those who let the good performances down: firstly, Olga Kurylenko- the ex-Bond girl is very good-looking as the Pict tracker who works as Quintus' personal nemesis, but she is mute, and never really convinces that she is particularly happy with not being able to flesh her character out with words. She also suffers from Obligatory Syndrome- as the only main female character she is drawn as an over-compensation, which detracts from the idea of her as a lone-wolf huntress somewhat.
Next up is Noel Clarke who plays entirely too modern by half to fit in with the film- original OWF reviewer John Nugent offered the opinion that in his (and co-star Riz Ahmed's) inclusion the film "makes the common cinematic error of characterising ancient cultures as blanketly tolerant of all races", but I prefer to think my lack of faith in his character was more down to his performance, which really grates. It is a huge shame, because Clarke is usually someone I highly value as an actor- crucially, he is always best when playing modern characters, and I think the role was simply not for him.
He isn't helped by the script, which is occasionally very silly, and often forgets entirely which historical period it is supposed to be portraying.
What Marshall has created is a film well-versed in his already established filmic conventions- over the four films he is most noted for, he has created and espoused an aesthetic and tonal quality that is now almost immediately recognisable as his own. There might not be the most amount of brains on show, but the brawn definitely works, and it is infinitely possible to forgive the film of its substance problems and simply get caught up in the pace of it all. The limitations might be too much for some, but you get the feeling that Marshall is poking fun at generic conventions when his characters, particularly Quintus, verge on silliness and cliche, because the director has been known to do the very same in his other movies. But, there is something new here: Centurion accomplishes the one thing I never thought I'd say of a Marshall film- it offers a quite telling allegory for the destructive, ill-considered hunger of American (and formerly British) imperialism/invasion, pitching the Talliban-like Picts against an army that simply can't handle their new guerilla methods or the fervour with which they are determined to protect their homes.
Overall, while visually very arresting, and hinged on strong, believable performances by Fassbender and West, Centurion suffers by comparison with Gladiator (the spectre it oddly can't seem to shed) and the approach of style before substance, action over information means the characters largely remain little more than skin-deep. But for an actioner, which manages to channel the spirit of a good old-fashioned chase movie and balances it with an often stunning visual aesthetic, the film works well, defying the degree to which it was ignored in favour of Iron Man 2 when it first played in cinemas.
All-in-all, another good genre addition from Neil Marshall, and to celebrate, here's my favourite bit of artwork from the film's marketing run:
Pretty reasonable, though not as visually outstanding as I'd have liked. Sam McCurdy's cinematography deserves sharp imagery, and the gritty tonal style obviously required a measure of grain to match the visual aesthetic with that tone, so it is good to note that there isn't any noticeable DNR (my technical nemesis!) robbing everyone and everything of its definition and realisticness.Extras
Quite a few good features, with a better than usual commentary track that is pleasantly technically minded, and two nice galleries of images. Shame there aren't any Blu Ray exclusive features, but the amount of stuff already included is a nice touch.Audio commentary with Neill Marshall, production designer Simon Bowles, prosthetics designer Paul Hyett and director of photography Sam McCurdy The Lost Legion Featurette Getting Down and Dirty Featurette Guts and Gore Featurette Fireballs, Stunts & Mayhem Featurette Outtakes (6 mins) Deleted Scenes (with optional Intro by Marshall) Production design gallery Photo gallery Theatrical trailer Centurion is available to buy on Blu Ray and DVD from Monday 16th August.