A Letter To Elia
Martin Scorsese narrates and co-directs a documentary on the late filmmaker Elia Kazan
On Film4: 20 Apr 2:50AM
A stranded group of Roman soldiers attempt to get back to safety through hostile lands
Centurion sees director Neil Marshall, of Dog Soldiers and The Descent fame (and Doomsday infamy), take a step back in time to the Roman occupation of Britain. He focuses on the aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion somewhere in the wilds of the North, a historically vague mystery that has inspired several novels. In Marshall's cinematic version of events, an attack by the savage Picts disposes of most of the legion in a blur of shaky-cam action, leaving a band of soldiers stranded behind enemy lines, and struggling to return to their garrison as a fierce Pict warrior (Olga Kurylenko) hunts them.
Admirably, the script takes the approach that people in Roman times didn't walk around solemnly declaiming things all the time - Roman soldiers would likely have spoken in much the same way that today's soldiers do. These are men's men, seen drinking and swearing manfully together. Unfortunately, Marshall seems to believe that this alone is enough to get us to root for them, in the sort of blokish, away-the-lads fashion beloved of tabloid football coverage. Perhaps, in a modern bromance, this might fly (though I doubt it). Here, the characters also represent an invading imperial force, attacking and suppressing native tribes. We can't root for them politically, and we can't root for them as personalities.
The film attempts to remedy this lack of appeal in its heroes by painting the savage Picts as totally alien savages and therefore somehow worse than their oppressors. It's the same trick English newspapers would pull back when the British Empire used to go about massacring African tribespeople. In particular, Olga Kurylenko's character, Etain, is shown to be a ferocious-eyed, woad-daubed mute, dedicated entirely to tracking down and killing off Our Boys. I lost count of the number of times that she is referred to as a "she-wolf". Translation: she's a cold hearted bitch.
But is she? Not far into the film, we're given Etain's back-story: as a child, her father was killed and her mother raped in front of her, before she was raped too and her tongue cut out. By the Roman army. She's bravely overcome that hurdle to fight for her homeland and people against the invading foreigners that did this. Anyone on her side yet? I certainly was. Yet she's cast as the enemy, which all makes for a totally depressing film in which the only victories are completely hollow and we can't care about the fate of most of the characters.
If Marshall is making the point that nobody wins in war, he's picked a funny way to go about it. It's just a shame none of this stuff was thought through a little more carefully, because there's a talented cast here who have been hung out to dry.
What have the Romans ever done for us? Raped and pillaged mostly, according to a film that also appears to want us to root for them. Bizarre.
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