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A Darkness Rises Up December 9, 2010

Posted by monty in movies.
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Neil Marshall has had a very curious career so far, but I kind of like it for its eccentricities.  His 2002 debut, Dog Soldiers, was a cool little low-budget horror flick about werewolves terrorizing an unarmed group of soldiers in the Scottish highlands.  He hit the next one out of the park with The Descent (2005), a claustrophobic thriller that I routinely name as one of the best horror films of the last three decades. Where a lot of directors, fresh off a huge success,  might be happy to plow the same furrow, Marshall delivered Doomsday (2008), an ambitious action flick about a post-apocalyptic society that sprang up in the wake of a worldwide pandemic.  It was an odd film in tone and subject-matter (it’s a medical thriller; no, it’s a rescue movie; no, it’s got … knights?), that was an ambitious failure, but which I still can’t avoid watching whenever it turns up on one of the movie channels.  The one common thread that runs through these films is that Marshall has an outsize vision – he’s credited as the director and sole screenwriter on all three of them, and as each one has increased in scope, it’s hard not to fault his ambition and his desire to chase whatever narrative obsession is currently intriguing him.

And that brings us to Centurion (2010), another of Marshall’s curious diversions that has little obvious similarity to any of its predecessors.  Set in Northern Britain in the 2nd Century, Centurion details the tension between the Roman Legion, led by Emperor Hadrian (yes, that Hadrian), and the Picts, a tribe of early Celts who, if the movie is anything to go by, favored animal skins and poor hygiene.  Early in the movie we see the Picts destroy a Roman garrison and take a lone hostage: Quintas Dias, played by the reliably great Michael Fassbender.  In this skirmish the Picts are established as a ferocious enemy, easily capable of besting the more heavily armed and armored Roman soldiers, and never settling for just stabbing a guy when they can impale him through his mouth or cleave his head in two with an axe.  If there were sensitive poets among the Picts, they were saved for another movie.

In York, the Roman 9th Legion, led by Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West – McNulty, for all you fans of The Wire) is preparing to move against the Picts. Before they do, they’re assigned a Pict scout – the beautiful mute Etain – to help protect them against the enemy.  It’s during this march that the 9th Legion discovers Quintas (who has escaped from the Picts), and finds itself besieged and routed by the Picts, who were working in collusion with the traitorous Etain.  The bulk of the movie is then taken up with the efforts of a ragtag band of surviving Roman soldiers, now led by Quintas, to find its way back to York and the Roman army while evading the Picts that are chasing them.

Marshall’s decision to go the historical fiction route seems odd since his previous films have all dealt, to one degree or another, with elements of horror or fantasy.  Centurion, by contrast, is a straight-up action movie in its first third, and more a chase film for the remainder of it.  In this way, the movie suffers some by comparison.  It was hard not to compare the early moments – and especially the vividly shot battles – with other Roman and Celtic action flicks like Gladiator or Braveheart, and, whether intentional or not, there were definite shades of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the soldiers’ struggle to return home.  Etain possesses preternatural tracking abilities (much like Lord Baltimore in Butch Cassidy) that allows the Picts to remain perpetually on the Romans’ heels, and there’s even a daredevil leap from a cliff into the raging river below.  The similarity was so heavy that at one point, while the Romans are hunched behind rocks on a hillside, watching the Picts draw ever closer, I was half-expecting Quintas to turn to the guy next to him and ask, “Who are those guys?”

Even though Marshall’s jones for historical fiction seems out of place with his previous efforts, I’m certainly not slighting his interest in giving it a shot.  In fact, the movie eventually won me over.  For one thing, the movie’s about as panoramic as it gets, bursting with stunning wilderness images: mountains, moors, rivers, forests, snowfields – they’re all captured beautifully by Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy.  In the Britain of Centurion, the North is bleak, unrelenting, mysterious, and breathtaking.  There’s also a bravura sequence where the 9th Legion has to defend itself against huge balls of flame that suddenly come bounding down a hillside out of the mist. It is, in short, a movie that’s beautiful in its desolation and violence.

The acting is more or less what you’d expect.  A bearded West hams it up nicely as the gruff and inspiring Titus, his English accent about as convincing here as his American one was in The Wire (but miles better than his ridiculous attempt at a New Yawk accent in Punisher: War Zone).  Fassbender lends the movie some much-needed gravitas as the soldier who’s charged with rescuing the men of the 9th, but who really just wants to go home and turn his back on the war.  Olga Kurylenko glowers convincingly as the fierce Etain (it’s unfortunate that, as a mute, she isn’t really asked to do much more than ride a horse and not talk).  And the unfortunately-named Imogen Poots (the daughter in 28 Weeks Later) has a nice turn as a Pict who’s been accused of witchcraft and cast out of the tribe.

There’s some final silliness at the end, with superfluous double-crossery and treachery, but here’s the thing about Centurion: it passes the time, and does so entertainingly.  It’s a well-made B-movie, and while I’m all about encouraging movies to strive to be Great Art, I also think there’s a place for movies that want to do no more than give you a good time for 90 minutes. More important still, I’m excited to see what Neil Marshall will try next.  He’s done horror, post-apocalyptic thriller, and period piece, and he’s done all of them convincingly (if not always 100% successfully).  I could see a Danny Boyle-like future for him, if he’s given the chance to hopscotch from genre to genre as it interests him.  I like directors like Marshall – even when his movies are noble failures, they’re always ambitious, and they’re never not interesting.

(Sidenote: Did this ever play in U.S. theaters?  I don’t remember hearing about it, but as I no longer live just up the road from Los Angeles [where all films eventually go], it wouldn’t surprise me to hear it enjoyed a short run somewhere.)


Current listening:

Bruce Springsteen – Devils & Dust (2005)