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AUSTIN — A refreshing answer to filmmakers who believe any swords-and-sandals film must be epic or at least overwrought, Neil Marshall’s “Centurion” delivers some large-scale action but plays almost like a Roman-era Western in its depiction of a few soldiers trying to get home alive after the slaughter of their comrades.
If its scope and lack of marquee names limit its commercial potential, the serious-minded and well-crafted film will please genre devotees and intrigue history buffs. It also looks set to beat another similarly themed film, Kevin Macdonald’s “The Eagle of the Ninth,” into theaters this fall.
Leads Michael Fassbender and Dominic West are both veterans of “300,” which like this film concerned the myth-shrouded defeat of a proud band of soldiers. But where the earlier film was all about the glory of combat (and of digitally enhanced abs), this one cares most about the battle’s few survivors, struggling to keep the remnants of their Ninth Roman Legion alive while being chased by the Picts through what is now the northern part of Great Britain.
Marshall isn’t uninterested in the battlefield, to be sure: In the film’s first half, he stages enthusiastically gory scenes that, for audiences not averse to very tight framing and very quick cutting, effectively depict a conflict leaving most of this band of Roman soldiers dead.
But he is also eager to imagine a more intimate scenario, in which the son of a gladiator (Fassbender) tries to rescue survivors and get them safely through some beautifully photographed terrain to a Roman stronghold.
Viewers inclined not to side with empire-builders but with those they would conquer will be pleased here: While Fassbender is clearly the story’s hero, Marshall’s camera views the Picts with respect, and Fassbender’s centurion is almost in awe of them as he attempts to plot a winding course away from their lead tracker.
Working with his regular cinematographer Sam McCurdy, Marshall delivers a picture with a dark, earthy style that suits the material well, making an easy transition from their well-received horror films (“Dog Soldiers,” “The Descent”) to more broadly accessible fare.
Venue: South by Southwest Festival
Opens: Friday, August 6 (Magnet Releasing)
Production company: Celador Films
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Noel Clarke, Liam Cunningham, David Morrissey, Riz Ahmed, JJ Feild, Dimitri Leonidas, Imogen Poots, Ulrich Thomsen
Director: Neil Marshall
Screenwriter: Neil Marshall
Executive Producers: Paul Smith, Francois Ivernel, Cameron McCracken
Producers: Christian Colson, Robert Jones
Director of photography: Sam McCurdy
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Costume designer: Keith Madden
Editor: Chris Gill
No MPAA rating, 97 minutes
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