Review: ‘Centurion’

If historical movies have one thing in common, it’s that they’re always historically inaccurate, often wildly so.  In his latest film, British director Neil Marshall has avoided this recurring problem by making the whole damn thing up.  Well, not exactly; Centurion is based on the myth of the 9th Legion, a unit of the Roman army which – so the legend goes – marched into tribal Scotland to conquer the last untapped stronghold of Roman Britian…and were never heard of again.

As Marshall has acknowledged, historians have since found evidence to the contrary, but for the purposes of this film, it’s far more entertaining to ‘print the legend’.   Marshall has clearly enjoyed the creative freedom afforded to him from fabricating a tale which has very little historical record, detailing how the best organised army in all the world could have just disappeared: by being ambushed and annihilated at the hands of the merciless Picts, the dominant Scottish tribe of the time.

Out of this ambush comes six intrepid survivors, who must trek across the Caledonian mountains to escape the ruthless pursuit of the indigenous warriors.  The result is a boisterous, tightly paced chase movie, like those popular in the seventies, where story takes something of a back seat to brutal, uncompromising action.

It’s difficult not to address the spectre of Gladiator when discussing a Roman-set movie; Ridley Scott’s 1999 epic is widely credited as reviving the long dormant swords-and-sandals genre, making history (or at least cinema’s bastardised version of it) cool again.  It’s an obvious influence, but Marshall’s film has none of the gloss or scale of Scott’s, nor the rich, impressive CGI realisation of ancient Rome.  His is a cold, gritty, uncaring vision of Roman Britain, shot almost for real in the harsh Cairngorms winter, a minimum of computer graphics, many of the stunts being performed by the actors themselves.  Less ‘swords and sandals’, more ‘mud and boots’.

Marshall’s approach has more in common with Zac Snyder’s 300 – both gleefully eschew the history books, both are unflinching in their depictions of violence and gore, and both feature impossibly chiselled men as their warrior heroes.  Here, though, it seems a little less ludicrous and homogeneous as 300‘s assortment of male models.  Michael Fassbender, as the leader of the Roman survivors, and Dominic West, as the legion’s General, have just the right hulking, powerful physicality to convince you they were warriors in an ancient civilisation. 

Crucially, both have the acting chops to match, and they ably give their respective characters a much-needed depth.  Fassbender imbues his Centurion Quintus with a war veteran weariness and an intense seriousness in his responsibility as leader.  West, too, is impressive; much like his character in The Wire, he has fun as the reckless, hard-drinking but respected General, frequently indulging in a bit of anachronistically modern swearing, Deadwood-style.

The rest of the ensemble are a mixed bunch.  David Morrisey is always good value and gives an appropriate everyman turn.  Noel Clarke, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to fit, and his attempt at a posh British accent – which, if movies are to be believed, is how the Romans spoke – borders on the laughable.  Plus, the inclusion of Clarke and Riz Ahmed, as the skilled fighter Tarek, makes the common cinematic error of characterising ancient cultures as blanketly tolerant of all races.

Olga Kurlyenko, as mute Pictish warrior Etain, is also somewhat ineffective, her character seemingly included to remedy what would otherwise be a uniformly male-dominated film, and subsequently she is one of those all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise superwomen we are always given when filmmakers need to over-compensate with female leads.  Kurlyenko does what she can with no dialogue, as other characters speak in hushed tones of her formidable proficiency on the ground – “she knows the forest!” 

Incidentally, said forests make up the best aspect of the film: the mountainous landscapes of Scotland are stunning, shown off in a series of crane and helicopter aided sequences that loudly echo the centrepieces of New Zealand’s similarly impressive Lord of the Rings establishing shots, and credit must go to cinematographer Sam McCurdy for his efforts.  Helped by historical enactment groups playing the doomed Roman army, McCurdy provides pretty authentic visuals, even if the set design occasionally feels slightly let down by a small budget.

But visuals is probably where authenticity ends with this film; it’s a modern action pic in a historical setting, a thriller not unlike Marshall’s previous offerings, and with it comes the baggage that action films often have – the adrenaline addiction that sidelines story, the clunky expositional dialogue, the too-often predictable plotlines.  Centurion is certainly more exciting and entertaining than any history lesson, and it’s a brave and welcome approach to make a bit of history up, but it could benefit from a little more substance.

A version of this review originally appeared on

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