Last Friday, after plunking myself down for an evening with Netflix Instant on the Wii, two episodes of Doctor Who and the beginning of a long overdue Buffy rewatch (yeah, it was that kind of night) I watched Centurion. Against the judgment of many a film critic, yes, but who am I to deny the lure of Neil Marshall, lots of ax-wielding gore, and Olga Kurylenko?
Centurion is a period action flick with a unique task. It clearly makes efforts to be both historically accurate and groundbreaking (in effect, being groundbreaking by being historically accurate) from language, to costuming (as it turns out though, the Picts used to fight naked, oh well), to a multiracial cast, to the female warriors the movie showcases. Which puts Neil Marshall on tentative ground. He’s already staked his name as a game-changer in what is considered a boy’s club genre with The Descent. By making the cast entirely female, the story took gender tropes, that horror films typically take on as a mandate, out of the equation. But Centurion would of course not be all female, and to have too many at the forefront would be unrealistic. Too few and the villain, Etain, would simply be a novelty. Personally, I think he handled the numbers game well, at least. There are a few females, one with actual lines even, backing up Etain on the Pict side of the story; a speaking female on the Roman side, and one featured in the middle. However, what he did with this balanced casting is another issue.
A part of me wishes that Olga Kurlenko was not so damn attractive, because it may just be me, but there seems to be something inherently beastly about her. The role of Etain is surprisingly believable on her, even if she doesn’t actually have the muscle mass to wield a weapon as effectively as she does in the movie. What can you do, they only make actresses in certain shapes and sizes these days. But like Marshall, Kurylenko clearly made an effort, evidenced in her fight scenes that feature her mostly from the front and by fault of her costuming her hair pushed back from her face, leaving little room for a stunt double. Not to mention, playing a mute lady warrior is not as easy as it sounds, particularly this one. Every silent moment is intense, and in every way Kurylenko embodies a woman intent on the hunt. As our angelic love interest tells our hero Quintius Dias, “Her soul is an empty vessel. Only Roman blood can fill it.”
Yeah, this girl’s got issues.
To say Etain is sympathetic would be difficult, but nonetheless she is a villain with depth, a monster with humanity, and one that is represented in a unique way. If you want to know the sequence typically used for unraveling a tragic, or at least complex, villain, just look to the one given to us by J.K. Rowling – the character is introduced as a bad guy, we’re then shown the similarities between him or her with the main character (or similarities he or she may have with the audience), then we see what caused the diversion between the two (what made the bad guy bad), and then the villain is defeated. Etain is introduced as an ally. A scary, tentative ally, but we’re told her loyalty is to the Romans by some very important but stupid people. She then, rather predictably, betrays the Romans. When the kidnapped General Virilus shouts “Traitor!” one cannot help but snicker a little bit. This is also the scene where we, and the general, learn who Etain is and why she did what she did. Its interesting that none of the other main characters of the story ever do.
Etain is one of this war’s most unfortunate victims – her village was pillaged by Romans, her father mutilated and killed, she and her mother were raped and her tongue was cut out so that she would not be able to tell the tale. Its not until after that point does Etain really come into her own as the dragon of this fairytale. The Picts use her to execute their wrath, because they know that she is both efficient and passionate about killing Romans. The scene where she fights and executes General Virilus is the movie’s best and most stirring. While the rest of the Picts cheer and collect the body to be burned, Etain moves away looking unmistakably haunted. Then she does the only thing a person without a tongue can do with her voice – she screams. Its not a scream of victory, or pride, but pain and frustration that no matter how many Romans she kills it will not change what happened to her. She’s not a villain granted a depth of character, she’s a villain because of her depth of character. Her story makes one thing very clear – you cannot fix this woman, and you cannot stop her either.
The foil for Etain is Arianne, a woman who has also experienced misfortune and as such lives an isolated existence, who our heroes stumble upon while running from Etain. Technically, Arianne has a lot going for her as a character. She’s the only sympathetic female, and she makes her own choices about who she is loyal to, regardless of war or heritage. She lives on her own, feeds and cares for herself but isn’t against doing so for others. She also stands up to some seriously scary people, based entirely on principle. For all intents and purposes, she’s a good person and well suited for the brutality of the world she lives in. However, for a movie that prides itself on its graphic realism, Arianne’s existence is not just incredibly convenient but downright absurd.
The one person who is willing to help the Romans is not only young and single, but incredibly beautiful? Really? Sure, she bears a scar from her ostracization from Pict society, but that backstory is never really explained. It serves as a means to giving the perfect woman a little more character, but also to give the audience a reason to hate the Picts. After all, at this point in the story, as frightening as they are, the Pict facing foreign invaders, and who is to say they are not justified in stopping them any way they can? So far the Romans are up to their noses in war they had no business starting, have raped and killed children, and the only thing that makes Quintius interesting is that he just will not die. A scratch on the face pales in comparison to what Etain has gone through of course, but that should come as no surprise. A woman with that kind of damage is no prize for our hero centurion. One of the reasons why Etain is not so easy to write off an a rape avenger trope is the context of the story – a few hundred years before the Dark Ages, within a war that’s been going on for two decades. Rape is as common a weapon of warfare as a shield or a sword. The idea that Arianne has not been affected by this but is also ignorant to Etain’s experiences, when she is aware of her reputation, causes a story that was at least somewhat tightly wound at the beginning to fray at the edges.
I think that part of what holds this movie back from greatness (or even goodness) is its treatment of its female presence. Why was Arianne accused of witchcraft? What is her relationship to Etain? Does she know about what happened to her, and if she did, why was she so insensitive about it in their confrontation? Answering these questions would be a step towards making a much more satisfying film. The next would be the ending.
What is probably the funniest and saddest part of the gender issues in Centurion is obvious at the end of the film, in the final face off between the straggling centurions and the Picts who are hunting them. There are three Pict women in the group of mostly men, and one is killed immediately by a spear to the chest. The shot is from a distance, and we see her get hit and fall off her horse. Fair enough. Then there’s Etain and a woman that’s called in the credits Aeron. Areon brings down several centurions before one finally brakes off the end of one of her arrows stuck in his leg and rams it through her eye. The previous hour of film featured heads and limbs being hacked off repeatedly in clear view, so it is glaringly obvious when the final blow dealt to Areon is seen from the back the of her head. One second we are on the battlefield with the rest of these men, experiencing every gory detail just as they do, and they next we’re in a movie theater a couple decades ago when effects and the MPAA would not allow us that level of intimacy. There is a quick shot of the aftermath, but its nowhere near the kind of graphic imagery that we saw barely 30 minutes before. When Etain fights Quintius, its nothing like the earlier fight with Virilus where we get to see a large range of movement and suspense, where she even gets a knock to the head and a bloody nose. Did Marshall go easier on us because we know that this will be her end? The fight with Quintius is downright lame, and when he begins to get the drop on her, smashing her head against a nearby post, all you can even see of her is the tossing of her hair. He might as well be fighting a pillow with a wig on it. Her death blow is a knife to the gut. Her eyes glaze over and she’s lowered to ground gracefully. No struggle to keep going, not even an acknowledgment of her killer.
Let’s make something clear. No one should condone violence against anyone. However, if a woman strikes a blow, she should be prepared to get one back. And if we get to see a woman eviscerate others for an hour and a half, we as an audience should be ready to see it come back around, and the filmmaker should be prepared to do it. We got to see them in war paint and with yellow teeth, they’re just as brutal and ugly as the men in this story, so why do they have to take their final bows like ladies? I don’t entirely blame Marshall for this – there was probably a lot of pressure when it comes to men doing violence against women (there’s woman on woman violence in The Descent that was in no way watered down). However, this kind of “sensitivity” leads to the failure of this movie, it takes you right out of the moment, when its most important it for you to be in it.
I won’t lie, I enjoyed this movie. I like my flicks rugged and red, not to mention Centurion probably has more substance than most of its like. The holes, however, are glaring, and are a part of a larger pattern. My point in all this is that a valid female presence is not the enemy of an entertaining action movie. Its the root of it, the same way having a valid male presence is in a romantic comedy. If you want to tell a story as raw as this one, you have to be willing to take on every side of it.