Reviewed at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.
I wish I found Hadrian’s Wall half as intriguing as British writer/director Neil Marshall apparently does. The structure, located in northern England, was built by the Romans to defend their northern line against the tribes beyond it, and it’s inspired the lesser two of Marshall’s films — 2008’s camptastic “Doomsday,” which imagines a future where a plague outbreak in Scotland leads to the wall being rebuilt for quarantine purposes, and “Centurion” (which played one of SXSW’s secret midnight screenings), which is literally about Romans and Picts engaging in bellowing border skirmishes in 117 AD. It’s a setting also being explored by Kevin Macdonald’s upcoming “The Eagle of the Ninth,” a film that plans to put a political spin on the ancient tale of imperialists and insurgents. “Centurion” doesn’t really aim to be anything more than a loping B-movie, but still comes up hollow — it’s a striking-looking, blood-spattered chase over the forbidding Scottish countryside that’s curiously spiritless.
Marshall’s modus operandi is basically survival horror — his four features to date have all been about a tough, outnumbered few struggling through hostile territory, soldiers vs. werewolves, cavers vs. crawlers, mercenaries vs. plague survivors, centurions vs. the barbarian hordes. “The Descent” remains his best work because of the unexpected complexity of the relationships between its characters, women whose history with each other includes rivalries, betrayals and resentment that bubble to the surface as the stakes are raised. “Centurion” instead has broadly drawn types — the (ahem) virile General Titus Virilus (Dominic West), the soulful Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), the was-going-to-retire Brick (Liam Cunningham), and the mute, near-supernatural Etain (Olga Kurylenko), who poses as a tracker assisting Virilus’ Ninth Legion in their search for Pictish leader Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), only to lead them into an ambush that leaves all but a handful of the men dead.
I’m still not sure how anything in which Dominic West plays a character named Virilus isn’t somehow fun, but in aiming for a grounded, subdued tone that’s far removed from the cartoonishness of “300” (in which West and Fassbender both starred), “Centurion” ends up in an awkward spot, trying to earnestly deliver on lines like “I am a soldier of Rome! I will not yield!” while also striving to sell former Bond girl Kurylenko as a woefully unconvincing Pict warrior badass. Marshall’s a fine director of action, and the film is rife with impressive footage of the mist-shrouded landscape and sequences of inventive, brawny violence, but to what end is all of that if you could can barely distinguish, much less invest yourself in, the characters involved?
“Centurion” will be released by Magnolia later this year.
[Photos: “Centurion,” Magnolia, 2010]