Centurion, from The Descent director Neil Marshall, takes as its central concept the semi-mythic tale of the Roman IX Legion, based in 117AD Britain. The Legion is famous for disappearing from the historical records of the time, presumed wiped out, during the Roman campaign to add Britain to its empire. In the film we join the IX Legion as it is ordered north of its defence line to subdue the wily Pict clan, who are wearing down the 20-year-old Roman invasion of the country via brutal guerilla warfare. When the Legion is butchered in an ambush, it is left to surviving Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) to lead a band of seven soldiers back to Roman lines, all the while pursued by the Pict's silent but deadly killer Etain (Olga Kurylenko).

Marshall certainly makes his film look more expensive than it probably was. There are CGI-enhanced army hordes, ranks of armoured extras and sweeping camera pans aplenty. The film also showcases some solid, wide cinematography from Sam McCurdy; northern Britain here appears to us as a windswept, rocky, harsh place where there is seemingly nowhere to hide.

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Marshall also deserves credit for eschewing large-scale CGI battles and big Hollywood names and choosing instead to turn the attention to the travails of a small band of warriors (played largely by a British cast), hunted by a woman, no less. The film is also careful to avoid glamorising the Romans and their planned subjugation of yet another piece of the globe. Lead actor Michael Fassbender, as Dias, is also a suitably intense lead with the right physical presence to carry off the action sequences. He's a thoughtful, though efficient, warrior struggling to keep his word and honour as a soldier.

However, Centurion cannot escape the huge shadow cast by previous swords-and-sandals epics, notably Gladiator. It also fails to escape the fate that awaits so many films aiming to recreate a distant historical period such as Ancient Rome: they just keep falling into the same cliché ridden conventions. For example the Roman characters continuously spout banal phrases such as: "You escaped the clutches of Gorlacon", while speaking in British accents, which seems to have become the only accent Hollywood can accept for onscreen Ancient Romans these days. The film's attempts to emphasise the horrors of a war driven by political machinations is also somewhat undermined by some clumsy hints that this Roman campaign could be an allegory for the Iraq war, and ludicrous levels of on-screen violence that either drag or veer into comedy.

Centurion is at least trying to do something different, but sadly it only partially succeeds.

Reviewed on: 21 Apr 2010
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A group of Romans struggle for survival after a guerilla attack.
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Director: Neil Marshall

Writer: Neil Marshall

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko, Dominic West, Imogen Poots, David Morrissey

Year: 2010

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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