In the year 1348, the Black Plague is sweeping through Europe, killing without mercy or discrimination. No one knew what caused it or how to stop it, only that it spread like wildfire and led to devastating and inevitable death. In a world dominated by religion, it must have seemed the judgment of an angry God or the work of demons. Such is the belief of the monks and fighting men in Black Death, a solid if not particularly remarkable B-movie potboiler.
Young monk Osmund jumps at the opportunity to join a group of mercenaries in search of a nearly mythical village that reports say is totally free from the plague – he’s experiencing a crisis of faith due both to the plague and his romantic attachment to a young woman, and being holed up in the monastery doesn’t seem to be helping him. But the search for the village takes on a religious significance as well, as the question arises whether it’s immune because it has been blessed by God, or because it has denounced God and given itself over to demons. Group leader Ulrich (played by the ever-reliable Sean Bean) ascribes to the second theory, believing that the village harbors a necromancer whose death would end the plague.
I assumed that, like most films of this type, the religious aspects would be brought up for background or sensationalist effect and then largely dropped, but the film actually follows through on many of the religious themes, perhaps not delving into the Christian/pagan/secular divide with anything approaching dogmatic depth, but keeping Osmund’s and Ulrich’s struggle to come to terms with the existence of the plague within their personal religious constructs always in sight. I quite liked that, and it added a lot of interest to the characters.
As a matter of fact, most of the characters here are better drawn than they have any right to be in a film like this – perhaps the supporting characters rely on stereotypes a bit, but they’re definitely individuals, each with their own point of view and recognizable responses. The unfortunate exception might be Carice van Houten (Black Book), who appears as a leader in the village, and she’s not given quite enough to do – her character has some surprises up her sleeve, but she appears one-note despite the plot twists surrounding her. That said, a lot of the ideas behind the story and her part in it are quite intriguing, leaving you with more to mull over than you’d expect.
Black Death is being sold as a horror film, but it isn’t that. It’s an atmospheric action drama with just enough of an undercurrent of unnameable dread and just enough of an offbeat approach to its story to be a genre film. It isn’t always great as an action film – the major fight sequence is shot much too close and spastic – but it is quite good at tying believable and highly medieval religious themes into the narrative, as well as complicating both motives and events, making it difficult to choose sides when it comes down to it. That ambiguity turns out to be the real strength of the film, and the thing that had me thinking about it for hours afterwards.
Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Dario Polani
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, David Warner, Tim McInnery, Kimberley Nixon
Country: United Kingdom
Running Time: 97min.