I’ve meant to write about Centurion, which I saw on Labor Day, and about which my feelings have been shifting ever since, but it’s been hard to crystallize my sense of it. I think the movie is undeniably a mess, poised somewhere between an epic of Roman folly and an exceedingly lean chase movie (though it leans much closer to the latter than the former), with some excellent acting and lovely cinematography.The mess first. The movie is a story of Roman folly and misapprehension of a dangerous foe. The Ninth Legion is sent out to strike hard at the Picts by a civilian commander eager for the glory that will earn him retirement back to Italy. He entrusts the expedition to a tracker who betrays the legion and leads them into a massacre, except for a small contingent of men who set out to make their way back to the front lines. The problem is that the movie tries to pin the disappearance of the Ninth (which may not have happened in Britain at all, though the truth remains a matter of viable historical dispute) on a Roman elite conspiracy. But it doesn’t engage at all with Roman politics. It doesn’t engage at all with Pictish politics, except to have us assume that blue facepaint=struggles for freedom perhaps carried a bit too far. And we don’t actually need any of these dynamics, we don’t need anything other than the chase. So why the movie bothers with those dynamics, doing them perfunctorily and poorly, is beyond me.All of that said, the acting is a marvel. Michael Fassbender is one of those actors I feel I was supposed to know about, but I never saw Hunger or Inglourious Basterds, the former because I never got around to it, the second because I don’t like Tarantino very much (I know, I know, to each her own, especially when it comes to Holocaust movies, all right?). But he’s just tremendous, from the moment he bursts on screen, running through the snow, his hands bound, his bare chest gashed, on a race for his life. He’s tender and violent, sometimes even simultaneously. Even when he’s given cliche material to work with, there’s a tremendous range of humanity playing across his face. It helps that he’s got good supporters, and supporting is the word: this is a movie dominated by a single man, despite the presence of Dominic West, rough and tumble and honorable. Liam Cunningham’s quite good as one of the last men standing with Fassbender, as is Noel Clarke as a runner-turned-soldier, using his experience as Mickey Smith from Doctor Who to good effect as a newly-minted badass. And David Morrissey, my beloved David Morrissey, who I am so excited to watch in the Red Riding triology once I can carve out six hours for it, is terrific as one of the men on the run, wounded, hopeful, fighting for his life. With his shaved head, there’s less of the soft man about him, even when he’s injured. Olga Kurylenko is very good as a mute tracker and killer, too, even though we don’t get to see her put inflection into her lines. Especially given how ponderous some of the dialogue is in the movie, she’s almost freed up by her inability to speak.And while lots of the writing and plotting are pedestrian, the film often looks great. The color’s really saturated so the landscape’s quite intense (and having spent time in Scotland, outside the cities, it remains quite a wild country — I once got off at the wrong station there and discovered later it was a good thing I had, since the station I had a ticket for had been abandoned), and colors like the woad on the Picts’ faces pops a lot. The blood, and there is quite a lot of it (sensitive readers be warned, the movie was about at my violence threshold), is in relatively realistic earth tones, though. This is no comic book vision of death. Life’s worth fighting for, and hard to hold on to.