Toronto After Dark 2010: Centurion

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Centurion
Directed by Neil Marshall

Genre director Neil Marshall is not what you might call an “ideas man.” His best film, the terrifying spelunking creature feature The Descent, thrived not on any elaborate concepts or carefully developed characters, but instead on the shrewd, cunning use of the film’s incredibly claustrophobic spaces to generate naturalistic dread. That neither of his other two features – the rote Dog Soldiers and the nonsensical Doomsday – are as successful can be chalked up to their dependence on Marshall’s scripts, which have so far been long on familiar shorthand and bravado but short on charm, distinguishing detail or anything approaching memorable dialogue. Sadly, Marshall’s screenwriting afflictions badly hamper the deeply forgettable Centurion, which squanders an intriguing setting – the forbidding outskirts of Northern Britain in the 2nd century – and a solid cast.

Hunger and Inglourious Basterds’ Michael Fassbender gets what must qualify as his first lead role in a mainstream film as Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier under Gen. Vinlus (The Wire‘s Dominic West). The two wind up among the few survivors of a Pict ambush of their legion, placing this small band of soldiers deep inside enemy territory and very much in imminent danger. They wind up as the prey of a cunning, mute turncoat huntress (Olga Kurylenko) and must rely on cunning, stealth and luck to survive long enough to escape to the front line.

Or, at least, that’s the intention. At one point early in the proceedings, Quintus praises the survivors as the bst soldiers he’s ever witnessed, but Marhsall’s writing undercuts that idea at ever turn, making each supporting player less dynamic than the previous. Worse still, of the two principals who can actually speak, only West, a ham straight from another age, seems comfortable here – Fassbender’s presence is too cerebral, too intellectually present for a character whose motivations as presented in the film are so remarkably simple. While the journey our heroes undertake is meant to be epic and foreboding, the actions the men decide on seem frequently arbitrary, and after a long, action-free dry spell, their eventual decision to take a stand seems in direct opposition with the rest of their tactics throughout the film.

The film’s chief virtues are shared by Marshall’s other films: we get a cohesive visual approach that successfully underlines the unforgiving nature of the terrain, and we get a number of inventive action-scene stagings. Unfortunately, Marshall hasn’t managed so far to make the strides necessary to consistently produce satisfying features. The ambush sequence works handily as a summation of both his virtues and flaws: as great fireballs roll down the hill at our heroes in every direction, there’s a great sense of danger, as well as a viscerally thrilling image. Then, as the battle properly begins and the sword-based combat takes precedence, the sequence begins to feel haphazard and un-engaging. Te legion lives on, but a writer capable of exploiting Marshall’s better tendencies would seem to be the only way out for moviegoers.

– Simon Howell

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