Centurion

In theaters, theoretically, but easier to find on alternative platforms (Xbox LIVE, Amazon Video on Demand, etc.).

Somewhere along the line, I saw a preview for Centurion and decided I wanted to see it. I’d liked several of the relatively unknown actors in other movies (Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds, for example) and was excited at the opportunity to watch them again. I’d heard interesting things about director Neil Marshall but had never checked out his break-out movie, The Descent, because horror really isn’t my thing, and a historical epic like Centurion looked more palatable. The preview’s sweeping panoramic shots of the wilds of Britain looked dramatic and gorgeous, totally the kind of thing I would love to experience on a big screen. I wasn’t expecting any kind of masterpiece, but it all looked exciting and fun. I added Centurion to my mental “to see” list.

And then, after the movie premiered, it was nearly impossible to find—and living in New York, I’m used to being able to see anything, both as soon as it’s released and weeks after. I eventually discovered that Centurion is one of those movies being released on various electronic platforms simultaneously with its theatrical release and that theaters are responding to this innovation by choosing not to show it at all. By the time I learned that, purely because I hate having even my most idle wishes thwarted, my desire to see Centurion had ramped up exponentially, so Sean and I ended up watching it On Demand (for significantly less than it would have cost to attend a theater, incidentally), and … it was okay. Completely … okay. And now I feel sort of silly about the whole deal.

Centurion is set in second-century Britain. The land is ruled by Rome, but the native Picts have been resisting their occupiers with ambushes and raids—the kind of guerilla tactics that irregular forces have always used against larger, better equipped, but less mobile, less motivated armies. (Marshall’s screenplay makes a few half-hearted stabs at contemporary relevance on this point, but it’s pretty shallow.) Roman Centurion Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is sent into Pict territory in the company of the Ninth Legion, led by General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West). The legion has been charged with meting out a decisive blow against the enemy, but instead they are betrayed by their Brigantian scout, Etain (Olga Kurylenko). Barely a handful of Romans escape the Picts’ trap, among them Dias, who leads his fellow survivors in attempting to save their captured general and escape from behind enemy lines, with Etain tracking their every movement.

This is, essentially, one long chase. Other than Dias, Virilus, and Etain, the characters are completely flat, and even that central trio doesn’t have much dimension. And yet the movie is gorgeous to look at. Marshall filmed on location in the Scottish highlands—often letting the sublime wilderness overwhelm the tiny, pitiful humans scrabbling across it, sometimes to stunning effect. The battle scenes remind me a bit of the opening sequence in Gladiator, when Russell Crowe’s character leads his Roman soldiers against rebellious Germanic tribes. Centurion doesn’t have anything like the emotional arc of Gladiator (a far better film), but Marshall conducts his clashes with similarly energetic, hyper-real flair.

As for the actors, they all deserve better, but they do the best they can with the material. The charismatic, forceful West makes you believe that Virilus is the sort of general who would inspire such loyalty from those under his command. Kurylenko’s Etain is mute, but her rage and intelligence are always palpable. Fassbender’s performance has a starchiness about it that left me unconvinced at first, but it works eventually for the same reason that his performance in Basterds works. In each, he’s playing someone whose buttoned-up demeanor makes him easy to underestimate, but what at first looks like mere reserve later reveals itself to be iron-willed resolve. Dias is badass in a weirdly prim-and-proper way, which is unusual enough to be somewhat compelling.

If the movie were better plotted, Centurion might have been more effective, but it gets old watching the Romans run, run, run and the Picts run, run, run after them. An interlude at the hut of a young woman in exile breaks the chase pattern but is tedious in its own special way. Even the lush landscapes become monotonous after a while. It’s not bad, but it’s just okay, and in retrospect, “okay” might be all I should have been expected in the first place.