Tuesday 24 January 2012

Just Roman around

The ancient epic revived by Gladiator collapsed under its own weight after Alexander, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven bored, bothered and bewildered audiences in 2004-5. It's no coincidence that semi-legendary director Ridley Scott should have been the genre's father as well as its gravedigger: at its height it attracted talent and money of a kind otherwise only seen in comic-book adaptations.

To all appearances the ancient epic was dead, but green shoots soon appeared. 300 proved that classical antiquity could still sell tickets, and the film's basic ingredients - a middling budget, a relatively junior director, over-the-top masculinity - became the building blocks of the revived revived classical picture. No longer epics but mid-range action-adventure flicks, films like Pathfinder, Clash of the Titans and Conan the Barbarian have not yet stopped making money.

Excepting 300, there hasn't yet been a single good film in the subgenre. Sadly Centurion proves no exception to this rule, but the film's thorough failure is especially frustrating considering its potential. Let's quickly run through the factors that ought to make Centurion utterly awesome. It was directed by Neil Marshall, he of The Descent (which, to my enduring shame, I haven't seen); it stars a post-Hunger Michael Fassbender, one of the greatest actors on this earth, as well as Dominic West of The Wire; it's set along the spectacular Caledonian frontier of Roman Britain; and oh yeah, there's the little matter of Olga Kurylenko wearing warpaint. But instead of being great or even diverting, Centurion just flails around wasting its potential for an hour and a half, and then ends.

We open with credits, and what ugly credits they are! As we're treated to a long aerial shot of Scottish mountains (beautiful in themselves), the credits woosh towards us in the most aggressive way possible; and if you like hideous fonts you're in luck, because the monstrosity in which everyone's name is presented will later double as subtitles for the Picts' barbarian tongue. My jaw dropped at the sheer atonal artlessness of this sequence: it looks like a computer game trailer from 1996, and I first assumed Centurion must be designed to be viewed in 3D like those early 80s films in which the credits seem out to stab you in the eye. But no, it's all two dimensions.

Anyway, we now get a shot of a half-naked man running through the snow-covered Caledonian wilderness, hunted by barbarians; in voiceover, he introduces himself as Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion. And with that we're back to sometime earlier, when Dias's fort is overrun in a Pictish surprise attack, all the soldiers are killed and Dias himself is captured and brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen). Some heated words are exchanged, and then Dias escapes offscreen. Got all that? Don't worry if not: everything I've just told you is irrelevant, and any information contained therein will shortly be repeated.

Anyway, Marshall cuts away to York, where General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) is ordered to take his Ninth Legion north of the border and defeat Gorlacon. He's assigned the mute British scout Etain (Olga Kurylenko) to guide him north of the border. During the expedition, Virilus saves the still-fleeing Dias from the Picts. The cheerful camaraderie does not last long, for like you and I Neil Marshall saw The Last of the Mohicans, wherefore Etain leads the Romans into an ambush where they're slaughtered by the Huron Picts. (On the plus side, West gets to shout 'It's a trap!'.)

All, that is, except for Dias himself and a ragtag bunch of misfit soldiers including Brick (Liam Cunningham). Dias leads these survivors to save their captured general, but their rescue operation is a fiasco: not only do they fail to rescue Virilus, but one of the Roman soldiers kills Gorlacon's son, leading the enraged Pict to swear blood vengeance on the fleeing legionaries. Before long, they're pursued across the harsh mountains of Caledonia by a posse led by the wrathful Etain.

Centurion's most crippling flaw is the absolutely wretched script, penned by Marshall himself. Let's not dwell for too long on the fact that it's relentlessly derivative, playing like a wacky mash-up of The Last of the Mohicans, Apocalypto, and Cold Mountain; nor will it do much good to groan at the plot holes, or the awkward way in which the mysterious disapperance of the Ninth is shoehorned in at the end. (And by 'mysterious disappearance', we of course mean 'failure to appear in the very patchy extant documents we have, although many of its officers do turn up in various places').

No, let's focus on the stuff that leaves the actors stranded. Fassbender's character, for example, has a backstory (his father was a gladiator) that's referred to exactly once and never impacts the plot; most other characters are not granted even that luxury. (Kurylenko gets an origin that opens the film's largest, most amusing plot hole.) As a result, Marshall is guilty of criminal negligence in wasting a very capable cast: I hesitate to use a phrase like 'career-worst performances all round', but anyone who's seen that already legendary dialogue scene between Fassbender and Cunningham in Hunger can only weep.

Surprisingly, Marshall's direction isn't much better than his script. He's so keen on Dutch angles one might think he was filming a Bizarro-World prequel to Battlefield Earth. His action scenes are best described as uninspired (they're shot and edited in the same choppy, disorienting way we see everywhere now). There is a stunningly tasteless zoom shot of Kurylenko screaming that lovingly shows off her tongueless mouth, too; and while this is a low point, it's not alone in this film.

The historical inaccuracies I complain about, but I can live with: I liked Gladiator, after all. I like the fact that the Picts are speaking Scottish Gaelic (although Arianne, played by Imogen Poots, goes for broad Scottish-accented English instead). Sure, it's not quite right: no-one knows for certain whether the Picts spoke a Celtic language, and if they did it was probably more closely related to the Brythonic languages of southern Britain rather than the Goidelic languages of Ireland and Dal Riada - from which Scottish Gaelic is descended - but I appreciate the effort.

That Roman soldiers in films forever use their gladii to slash away at their opponents, rather than viciously stab them in the gut as they should, is by now expected; that the Roman soldiers carry the wrong spears - hastae, thrusting spears used both in the early Republic and in the late Empire, rather than pila, heavy javelins - surprised me a little, but I'll take it as a bold attempt to draw attention to the fact that Roman equipment was not uniform throughout the empire. And I rather adore the film's earthy tone and the use of English regional accents to represent Vulgar Latin.

My tone has, I think, been somewhat harsher than Centurion really deserves: it's not totally incompetent. As a dully entertaining genre flick, it mostly works. The problem is that it's such a disappointment: filmed in the absolutely gorgeous outdoors of Scotland and northern England, the film should look amazing, but cinematographer Sam McCurdy can't hack it. Instead, its wintry landscapes quote the visual vocabulary of King Arthur, surely the most dire film ever made on similar subject matter. Its other flaws - strange fade cuts, the gruff growling that seems to be mandatory for male actors in these films - are forgivable; what makes Centurion especially appalling is the sheer sad, ruinous waste of talent and opportunity it presents.

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