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Modern British Cult Cinema: Centurion

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When the legendary Roman Ninth Legion are ambushed and their numbers decimated by the elusive Picts, Centurion – Quintus Dias, and a small band of Ninth Legion survivors attempt to mount a rescue of their captured General – Virilus, and escape before the wrath of their opponent destroys them all.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Olga Kurylenko, Dominic West, David Morrisey, Ulrich Thomsen, Imogen Poots, Noel Clarke. Director:Neil Marshall. Writer: Neil Marshall.

Modern British Cult Cinema presents another fantastic film from one of our very favourite English directors – Neil Marshall, best known for earlier entertaining epics such as – Dog Soldiers, Doomsday and The Descent. Contrasting to his previous action/horror hybrids, Marshall this time tackles the ancient past with the Roman occupation of Britain in 117 AD, though his trusted trademark of copious amounts of action, violence and gore are thankfully still in full effect here.

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Based upon the infamous tale of the curious disappearance of Rome’s legendary Ninth Legion, 3,000 elite Roman troops who mysteriously vanished whilst marching from York to Scotland in 117 AD. Though historians dispute the facts behind their strange vanishing, director – Marshall gives his own account of this classic fable, and one hell of a great medieval period action extravaganza. Shot in the UK, specifically the highlands of Scotland and the English forests of Surrey and Hampshire, the movie is spectacular to behold, lavish sweeping shots of the gorgeous yet notoriously harsh Scottish highlands intercut with the tranquil but sumptuous English countryside, this movie is a feast for the eyes.

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Accomplished actor – Michael Fassbender plays Centurion Quintus Dias, a lone survivor of a midnight raid on his remote Roman outpost by a Pict warband. Eventually freed from his captors by General Virilus (Dominic West) and his Ninth Legion, Quintus chooses to stay with the legendary legion on their march into the wilds to capture or kill the Pict Commander – Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen) Recruiting a Pict scout – Etain (Olga Kurylenko) to guide them through the severe Scottish landscape, the Ninth Legion begin their march into eventual ruination and defeat.

Marshall presents us an epic and ambitious movie replete with large scale battles, and smaller bloodier skirmishes. As with all of Marshall’s previous films, he revels in portraying the ultimate aftermath of violent action, Centurion has it all – decapitation and impalement are rife – throats are cut, arrows embedded and in one particularly excruciating scene, a Legionnaire is interrupted by a spear, in a none too pleasant manner, whilst urinating, such was the era though and Centurion capture the brutal and bloody past ferociously.

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Shot on relatively small budget considering the vast scale of the story (around 14 million pounds) the film has the genuine look and scope of a production that cost at least five times that amount, the size and complexity of the film is on a grand scale, from the aforementioned cinematography, the fantastic actors and wardrobe comprising hundreds of Roman and Pict costumes and sundry weaponry. The acting turns themselves are outstanding, Fassbender is excellent as ever, embracing his role as the titular Centurion in the title brilliantly, though for me personally, the film is stolen by Olga Kurylenko’s – Etain, a strong, disquieting, dangerous but ultimately tragic character, and Olga pitch perfectly captures these emotions, even though Etain herself is mute, a sublime performance. Backing them up in great supporting roles are Dominic West as General Virilus and Ulrich Thomsen as the Pict Commander Gorlacon, amongst many others.

The dichotomy of the film though, is that throughout you are rooting for Quintus and the surviving Ninth legionnaires whilst they are hunted down by the Pict warriors, when in reality the Picts themselves were defending their homeland from the invading force that was the Roman Empire. Though Marshall does touch on this several times in a number of scenes including a sequence where Gorlacon tells captured General Virilus of Etain’s tragic past due to the Roman occupation and their ensuing brutality on the indigenous population, giving the Picts and their cause some much needed pathos.

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Very much a Brit answer to films like Gladiator, but made on about one tenth of the budget of that particular classic, Centurion is an impressive achievement. The first half of the film is an epic in every sense of the word with its massive battle scenes, the second half of the movie though is more intimate in its story as the Roman survivors are slowly hunted down one by one by their Pict pursuers. Another fantastic movie by Neil Marshall, and worth the admission price alone just for Olga Kurylenko’s acting prowess. Highly recommended.

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