by Jay Stringer
You have got to love Neil Marshall. He’s making the kind of films that the British film industry doesn’t want him to make, but he’s still making them in Britain.
Unless your film features a corset, heroin or some form of funny mid-life crisis, the industry will neither support you nor fund you. And it will be a fight to get your film into the cinema.
Marshall doesn’t make the right kind of films. He wasn’t inspired the be a director because of Merchant Ivory or Jane Austen, he was inspired by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. He makes action films, ones with enough charm to skate over the cracks and enough good ideas to leap over the bad choices.
I haven’t seen DOG SOLDIERS since it came out. I can’t speak for how well it stands the test of time, but I have the sneaking feeling it might not hold up so well a decade later. THE DESCENT, however, is one of the best straight-up horror films I’ve seen in the last decade. There was one scene in that film where the cinema audience screamed louder than anything I’ve ever heard. And I’m not talking about the kind of ‘playing along’ scream that you often get, the sort where people have turned up to interact with the film and have fun. Okay, so U.S. audiences had to sit through the wring ending, but the DVD release made both versions available, and the film still works.
The minute I saw the trailer for CENTURION I knew my ass was going to be in that seat on release day. It bore all the hallmarks of what I like about Marshall, a familiar story in an unfamiliar setting, a swords and sandals film after a heart transplant with a THE DIRTY DOZEN. The added bonus that McNulty was in it just featured the deal; I wanted to see it just for the moment a Roman-era Bunk Moreland turned up (warning –this might not actually happen.) The problem was that I didn’t get the chance. Some time went by, other films came and went, and then the film was out on DVD. No major theatrical release, no support from the British media, nothing. This is quite a shame, because for some reason the industry seems to be trying to drive one of it’s most natural directors out of the country.
The Film’s set up is simple; the ninth legion are the best fighters in the Roman empire, and they are dispatched to Caledonia in a secret mission to take out the king of the Picts. The film plays fast and lose with history, but those people who are criticizing it’s accuracy are being facetious; we don’t know much about the fate of the ninth legion and we know even less about the Picts.
One of the films main problems occurs very early on; the double cross is way to obvious. I don’t buy into the fact that suck experienced soldiers don’t spot the trap until it’s too late. I won’t go into more detail on that, but it doesn’t matter, you’ll see it straight away too.
The other problem is character development. THE DESCENT is still Marshall’s best stab at that, he found a way to get across a lot of information in some very simple ways, and used the relationships of the women to give you some background and empathy for each of them. There’s not much here for us to hook into. We’re given one scene where the soldiers talk about where they’re from, and then it’s down to the actors to make us care. Overall they pull it off, each of the actors is good enough to give us something.
The character who suffers most from the lack of development is Thax, the ‘Mr Grey’ of the film, who’s actions are never fully expanded upon. A third of the way through the film he does something horrible, and in that moment the story can’t seem to decide whether he does it out of panic, or whether he does it because that’s the way he’s wired. His actions later on seem to lean toward the latter, but this was inconsistent with what went before.
These are small complaints against what was a very effective film.
Michael Fassbender is good as the films central character, and he’s come a long way in a short space of time. Give him the right material and he can carry a film. Olga Kurylenko does well in a thankless role. Her character, Etain, is the main threat in the film. She hunts down the solders with an almost preternatural ability, her sense making up for the loss of her speech. The role guarantees that she will look cool, she gets to do fun things and be an imposing force, but it would have been very difficult to find a human hook in the role. Robbed of speech, and with all of her motivation coming n the form of back-story, she was never able to discuss her actions or lay out any clear character arc. I get a sense from her that she welcomes death, that he soul will not be happy until she it with her dead family, and that she wants to meet the challenger who can grant that. What Kurylenko manages to do is create a creature on instinct, something primal andterrifying, but the side effect is that the character loses a bit of humanity in the process.
You know exactly what you’re going to get from Marshall. There will be blood, jokes, action and pace. His sense of suspense is constantly developing; the first film was in a confined space with the threat on the outside, the second film saw the threat coming from inside that confined space; this film is all out in the open. The threat is behind you, in front of you and around you, it’s casing you across country. Even saying that, there is still a common thread; the problems arise when the protagonists invade the space of the enemy. So who are the protagonists? Who are the enemy? Is it the Werewolves, or the solders coming at them with guns? Is it the colony of cave people, or the women invading their home? Do we route for the invading Roman army, or for the Picts defending their home? They are all interesting ideas that are never allowed to get in the way of the story.
There are more direct social comments to be found if you’re looking for them. The film opens with an army occupying a hostile land, remote and lonely, where the locals fight back with guerrilla warfare. As Fassbender’s character says, ‘this is a new kind of war, a war without honor, without end.’
The ending of the film is fairly obvious after awhile. But that’s not a criticism, often the ending of a well told story is obvious, it’s what the narrative has lead to. You could argue that the set up for this ending comes a little too late in the film, it borders on being a narrative arc that exists only in the third act, but I think it works.
I think Marshall succeeds in almost everything he sets out to do here, and creates a fun action film. It’s a cut above most of the brainless fare that makes it into the cinema, but it’s far from perfect. What I want to see next is his big step forward. We know by now that he can do this sort of thing. He’s done it well every time. I want to see him up his game in terms of character development and try something new with his narrative structure. Actually, I would love to see what he could do with a modern urban crime thriller.