Neil Marshall's 'Centurion' takes his feral feminism to Roman Britain

by Tirdad Derakhshani

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

30 August 2010


PHILADELPHIA — Writer-director Neil Marshall, whose historical war epic, “Centurion,” opened Friday, has done a lot for women.

And a lot to them.

His breakout hit, 2005’s “The Descent,” featured an all-female cast. The women don’t fare well: The film is about six spelunkers trapped in a cave populated by homicidally famished, slimy humanoids with really big pointy teeth.

In his follow-up, “Doomsday,” the horror auteur pitted the comely Rhona Mitra against a Mad Max-ian tribe of cannibal warriors, including a particularly nasty serial-killer chick who files her teeth into fangs.

“Centurion,” which stars Olga Kurylenko as the warrior to end all warriors, is little different.

Marshall and his wife, Belgian actress and writer Axelle Carolyn, were in town to promote “Centurion,” a blood-drenched take on the Roman army’s disastrous attempt to subdue Scotland’s indigenous Pict tribes in A.D. 117.

Marshall, 40, says the film is loosely based on the legend of Rome’s Ninth Legion, “which marched into Scotland to battle the Picts and vanished without a trace.”

“Centurion” boasts a cast including Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, David Morrissey, and Liam Cunningham, all as Roman soldiers.

But the film belongs to Kurylenko, who plays Etain, a feral, wolfskin-wearing Pict hunter who leads a small band of warriors — a sort of tribal Green Beret unit — in pursuit of a band of Roman soldiers who have murdered the tribe’s crown prince.

“Centurion” also boasts an intense turn by Carolyn, 31, who plays Aeron, one of Etain’s henchwomen. A fierce warrior with scary-bad yellow teeth, she seems to relish slicing Roman soldiers.

“You know, a lot of academics have written about Neil’s heroines,” says Carolyn, sharing a couch with Marshall in a hotel off Rittenhouse Square. “Some of them thought (his depiction of women) is amazing. Some, on the other hand, have written about how Neil hates women.”

Marshall is by turns amused and nonplussed by his reputation as a feminist — or is it post-feminist? — filmmaker.

“I don’t go into it thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to include strong women.’ I just want to create strong characters,” he says. “I’m not really interested in seeing women as victims, but I’m not necessarily interested in women as femmes fatales, either.”

Carolyn, who made her film debut in Brian Yuzna’s 2006 there-are-demons-under-the-lake shocker “Beneath Still Waters,” says she was happy to land a part as a soldier.

“It was a very unusual part for me,” she says. “Up until that point I was only offered victim roles.”

For all its madness and mayhem, Centurion seems an unusual choice for Marshall, who is acclaimed for horror pics that mix gruesome visuals with off-the-wall humor. He made his feature debut with 2002’s stunning shocker “Dog Soldiers,” about British soldiers beset by berserk werewolves.

“I’ve always been a big fan of so many different kinds of movies, including historical adventures,” Marshall says. “I’m sort of just ticking off the list of the kinds of films I’d like to do.”

Asked to name his favorite films, he reels off a list of the usual suspects — “An American Werewolf in London,” “Wolfen,” “The Fog.”

“But my all-time favorite film, the film that made me want to make movies, was ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” he says. “That was the biggest inspiration I have had.”

Steven Spielberg? As inspiration for some of Britain’s grisliest films?

“Look at ‘Raiders’ and it has everything films could have,” Marshall counters. “It has guys being pushed into propellers, (it has) guys with melting faces ... a lot of skulls. And basically a lot of horror influence.”

Carolyn and Marshall make for an interesting contrast. Marshall boasts a dark beard and is on the rotund side. He’s loquacious. At ease.

Carolyn, clearly more reserved, has striking blond hair and pale skin. She’s slim, waiflike.

She’s also a little tense: A former film journalist and author — her movie guide, “It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millennium,” came out last year — she’s not used to being on the other side of the reporter’s tape recorder.

But the couple, who have been married for three years, share an overriding, almost transcendent passion for horror movies.

They take turns describing their first meeting at a horror film festival.

“I was working for Fangoria (horror magazine) at the time, and I interviewed Neil,” says Carolyn. “I had seen ‘Dog Soldiers,’ and I just really wanted to meet him.”

Marshall chimes in: “A few days later I started sending her e-mails. . . . She couldn’t get rid of me.”

In true goth-romance fashion, the couple wed in Edinburgh Castle on Halloween.

“Oh, and everyone wore masks,” Marshall says, laughing.

“Mine was a kind of classic Venetian mask with a white feather,” Carolyn says.

Adds Marshall, “Mine was like a skull.”

Surely, these two have found the secret to a happy marriage.

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