Written and Directed by Neil Marshall
CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS
Nasty, brutish and (at 90 minutes) short. This film has an extremely high blood, gore and severed body parts count. The advances in SFX technology means you can have heads sliced off to camera with blood spurting everywhere, and the SFX required gets heavily used.
Centurion is set on the Scottish borders in 117 AD, just as the Romans are about to build Hadrian’s wall. The Romans have forts on the north side and still plan to extend the empire. The Picts prove intractable and this is the story of why the Romans decided enough is enough and built the wall. It’s a British film, so you get the impression there’s been major attention to historical detail, and there’s no Hollywood matching tartans and skirling bagpipes for the Picts. Instead they’re dressed in generic 2nd century Barbarian.
The Encylopedia Brittannica has only about an inch of text on the Picts. In a nod to Mel Gibson’s forays into Aramaic and ancient Mayan, the Picts in the film speak in Pictish, a language that died in the 9th century so thoroughly that no one seems sure whether it was related to Gaelic or not. This means they converse in guttural grunts, which sound pretty much like I’d imagine Pictish to be. Unfortunately, this involves subtitles, and the subtitles are the most misguided I’ve ever seen. They’re in a fancy all-capitals font, and are therefore near illegible. Pictish fares better than English (which stands in for Latin) though, because the dialogue is dreadful throughout.
Picts ‘n’ Scots / Jocks ‘n’ Geordies?
In most people’s minds Picts ‘n’ Scots go together like bread ‘n’ butter or fish ‘n’ chips. They always appeared together, like the Jocks ‘n’ Geordies in the Dandy comic. I assumed that as the border was an artificial one, and that the people on both sides were much of a muchness, and guessed the Picts were more southerly than the Scots. Not so. They were the Eastern people of Scotland, though apparently ‘Pict’ was also a disparaging Roman name for anyone living north of the wall.
George MacDonald Fraser’s two novels set on The Borders in the 16th century, plus The Steel Bonnets, his exhaustive history of The Borders in that era confirm the view that The Borders were one distinct region with a political border slicing across the middle. That explains something. The film starts out with a Pictish attack on the Roman fort, killing everyone except our hero, The Centurion (Michael Fassbender). The Picts attack the fort naked to the waist in freezing weather. All visitors to Newcastle in winter note the habit of the youth in walking around in thin shirts and blouses in the coldest weather, eschewing jackets or overcoats. These Geordies are proud descendants of The Picts.
So our Centurion legs it to York to report the loss. Southerners like me are always amazed to find that when you’ve driven from the south coast to York, you only seem to be about halfway to the Scottish border, so it’s a fair old trek. In York he meets The General (Dominic West), and the 9th legion sets off to destroy the Picts and establish a bit of Roman law and order. They’re led by an attractive female Pict tracker (Olga Kurylenko), who will betray them. There’s an ambush, the Picts resorting to Great Balls of Fire (I joke not) to destroy the legion’s serried ranks. According to the film publicity the legion were ‘decimated’. No, that means 10% were killed. In this case, around 99% end up on the ground with missing bits and buckets of blood all over them.
Oh, shit! Michael Fassbender surveys the remains of the 9th Legion
The survivors then try to rescue the captured general and make their way back to the border. The tracker, whose name might be something like Grunt Grunt, assists the Pictish King, Grunt Grunt Grunt, in finding and slaughtering them. In the process, one of the Romans kills Grunt, the son of Grunt Grunt Grunt, giving the king motivation (if he needed it) to step up the slaughtering intent. To me, Grunt Grunt Grunt looks the sort of fellow to slaughter you on a whim for fun. All these people have character names listed on the Internet Movie Database, but I didn’t pick any up from the movie.
Dominic West, the General, in captivity
Grunt Grunt, our female tracker has multiple layers of motivation having seen her parents murdered and raped by the Romans (the film isn’t clear on the order there), then having been raped herself and having had her tongue cut out so she couldn’t tell anyone at all. Anyway, she tells her fellow Picts, and devotes her life to worming her way into the Roman army’s trust. So once they’ve finished incinerating Grunt’s body, the Picts decide to get REALLY heavy and apply some warpaint. Or woad as it was known. Roman historians noted that the Picts wandered around caked in woad. Possibly a layer of blue mud provided protection from the elements. That’s why they were called Picts meaning ‘painted people.’ However, the gorgeous Grunt Grunt, applies a few tentative and artistic dabs of blue to her fine cheekbones rather than cakes her face in slap.
Grunt Grunt with skilfully-applied woad (Olga Kurylenko)
So the cohort are off through the wild hills pursued by relentless Pictish pursuers. They are saved at a crucial point by a Pictish necromancer, played by Imogen Poots (who starred in the 2010 remake of Bouquet of Barbed Wire). She has been thrown out by the tribe for necromancy and perhaps aversion to woad. Her name, Arianne, might not have been sufficiently gutteral too.
Arianne’s her name, necromancing’s her game (Imogen Poots)
One by one the Romans are picked off or die horribly. This gets confusing as they long ago abandoned their Roman armour so are dressed in generic barbarian garb themselves. It’s a bit hard to see who’s killing who, and in the fight in an abandoned Roman fort, one guy is apparently murdered horribly several times.
Anyway, most of the cast end up dead. The Romans prove to be as nasty and brutish as the Picts. There is a happy(ish) ending.