Genre maestro Neil Marshall's new film, Centurion, is all killer no filler, an economic narrative about a band of Roman soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Northern Britain. The mis en scene is lean, agile, and tough, like its characters, and similarly smeared in dirt and drenched in neon-red blood. Story and execution work brilliantly and symbiotically together.
Rising star Michael Fassbender (pictured) fronts a solid ensemble, which includes fellow Brit Dominic West, Irish veteran Liam Cunningham, and strong female characters brought to life by lethal Ukrainian beauty Olga Kurylenko (also pictured) and mousy yet quietly confident englishgirl Imogen Poots. There is no ego in this cast; everyone works towards the quality of the whole, while still managing to shine in there own rights. This unity perfectly reflects the ideal dynamic among Roman soldiers, which is tested as Quintus Dias (Fassbender) leads his fellow warriors through the treacherous proto-Scottish wilderness.
One surprising element of Centurion is its contemporary sensibilities; it will resonate with modern Americans for its themes of soldierly brotherhood, the physical and emotional scars of war, the difficulties confronting a foreign army against insurgency. Above all, and indeed through the prism of these ideas, the film asks the timely question of what a conflict is worth. These ideas are thankfully subtle, never coming close to insulting, Avatar-esque levels of obviousness.
As with many films in the historical action genre, Centurion is fueled by healthy doses of testosterone, but is not without a woman's touch. Though it does not pass the Bechdel Test (there are only two major female characters, and one remains mute), it still provides realistic examples of women in a genre usually dominated by men. In film's of this ilk, on the rare occasions that women do show up, they are usually nothing more than eye candy or helpless damsels in need of rescuing by a strong alpha male. Not so in Centurion; Kurylenko's Pict warrior Etain is a brooding, intelligent, and deadly force of nature, who can hold her own against any man in the picture without coming off as overly butch or blandly evil. On the other end is Poots as Pict outcast Arianne, who has convinced the leaders of her native, patriarchal society that she is a witch so that she may live a peaceful, independent existence on her own. Quintus and his brothers-in-arms come upon her at their most desperate hour, and it is she who does the rescuing. She treats their wounds, feeds them, and gives them refuge for the night, but she is not simply here to serve the men. Arianne has a rare agency; a wholeness that we don't often see. She and Quintus are drawn to each other, but not to fulfill some lame, trite requirement that our hero have a love interest; they are equal entities, and the attraction that forms between them is very real and perfectly natural. Credit is due to Fassbender and Poots, who convey this budding relationship with admirable subtlety, and create a bond that lingers even as Quintus and his troops move on down the road.