The history books are as full of myths and legends as they are of facts – particularly when it comes to the Roman Empire. Here we have one of those myths – the disappearance, in northern Britannia, of Rome's Ninth legion in 117 AD – stunningly brought to the screen by horror maestro Neil Marshall.
The Romans are trying to expand their empire, but are meeting resistance from the Picts – a tough, barbaric race of Celts who were the ancestors of the Scots, and who have been successfully repelling the Romans through a prolonged campaign of guerilla warfare. After the Picts raid a Roman fort, Quintus Dias (Fassbender), the only survivor, joins the Ninth Legion. He takes command as the troops set out to rescue their captured leader, General Virilus (West). What follows is an epic of violence and revenge, but also a damned fine chase movie.
Centurion's greatest strength is the old-school filmmaking approach of Marshall and his team. There's barely a whiff of CGI anywhere, and the majority of the film – with the exception of a few interior scenes that were done in the studio – was shot on location in England and Scotland, in often trying conditions. Yes, the scenes atop a snow-covered mountain were actually shot atop a snow-covered mountain. That blue tint to the actors' skin was not make-up, but a genuine hue brought on by the filming conditions. The battle scenes, too, are incredibly realistic – tough and gory, with swords swinging and arrows flying, heads being hacked and limbs lopped off (this really isn't a film for the squeamish). And again, it all appears to be practical effects rather than CGI. Which all means that, moreso than any other recent historical epics of this genre – Gladiator, 300, King Arthur, Troy – Centurion imparts on its audience a real sense of time and place. You really do believe that this is how it could have happened back in the 2nd century.
Also significant is that, again unlike other films of its kind, Centurion is not a tale of "good vs bad". Both sides firmly believe that they are fighting for what is right; the Picts are defending their homeland, while the Romans believe they must expand their empire at all costs. Many who see this film, such as myself, will probably side with the Picts. There's almost a very subtle subtext at play, too, comparing the American "empire" invading Iraq with the events of the film. Performances, too, are first rate. Although there are no huge marquee names involved, this is a film that will sit proudly on the CVs of all invloved. Leading the way are Fassbender and West – both veterans of 300 – but right behind them is former Bond beauty Kurylenko, who manages a stunning turn without uttering a word (her character was raped as a child and had her tongue cut out).
Marshall has built his reputation as a maker of very fine horror films – particularly 2005's The Descent, but also Doomsday and Dog Soldiers. He successfully transfers his horror sensibility to the action genre, imbuing it with a freshness not seen since Paul Greengrass's Bourne movies. Centurion is an unpretentious, gripping, visually stunning, taut, dark and dirty, well-paced action film that is sure to expand Marshall's fanbase.