I have enjoyed Neil Marshall's body of work since his debut film Dog Soldiers back in 1999. Both it and his follow up movie The Descent were exceptional genre pieces. Doomsday was more of an indulgence, being a homage to similar such movies from the eighties. However, as I’m from the same generation as the director, I forgave this. Marshall is one of the few British film makers whose work maintains an inherent English perspective. Centurion continues to reflect this, tackling the enduring mystery of the demise of the Ninth Legion and offering an inventive explanation. Making good use of forest locations both in Surrey and Scotland, the film is a violent survivalist tale, with a few twists along the way.
One again the director returns to the tried and tested theme of small group of individuals pit against a superior foe. After an efficient opening sequence which establishes the back story and sets the scene, we are presented with a Pictish assault upon the Ninth Legion. The battle is swift and decisive, leaving most of the men dead and the legion commander Gratus (Dominic West) captured by Celtic chieftain Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen). The plot then shifts its focus to an eclectic group of survivors led by Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) as they try to escape to the English border to warn the Roman forces of an impending attack. They are doggedly pursued by a Pict hunting party led by Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a mute woman seeks revenge for her murdered family who died at the hands of Imperial forces.
Centurion makes a school boy error in so far that it peaks in the first act of the film with its gritty ambush sequence. The plot fails to maintain exactly the same degree of intensity for the remainder of the movie. As a result, Centurion becomes noticeably less exciting as it progresses, slowing in the middle, to accommodate a romantic interlude between Quintus and a Pictish women (Imogen Poot) exiled for witchcraft. Like Doomsday before it, Marshall’s Centurion is more of a sequence of strong set-pieces rather than a cohesive linear story. The production design by Simon Bowles and cinematography by Sam McCurdy do however help compensate for the weakness of the narrative. Perhaps if the director had worked with an additional screen writer, the script may well have reached its full potential and had a greater depth.
Despite a strong cast, many of the support characters fail to meet their potential. West’s arrogant performance as a Roman officer counter balances Fassbender’s stalwart resolve. The pair easily carry the central roles well. Yet little is done with Olga Kurylenko's mute character beyond her superficial feral characteristics. It is a real shame because such a role has scope for a very interesting backstory. With a stronger screenplay, this could have been a superior action film, rather than simply a competent one. As it stands, Centurion is an acceptably entertaining historical action movie with solid set pieces and a steady pace. It is not the director’s strongest work but it is certainly with merit.