Black Death (2010)

1348, and the bubonic plague is beginning to ravage Europe, and will eventually kill nearly two hundred million people. Is this God’s punishment, or the work of devilry? Novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), with his wavering faith, is chosen to guide a group of bishop’s men to a small village hidden deep in the marshes, somehow untouched by the plague. There is speculation the village is protected by a necromancer, who has cast out God in favour of human sacrifice, cannibalism and resurrecting the dead. The group’s purpose is to capture this witch and save the village. But nothing is ever that simple.

Black Death is a surprisingly cerebral film, with deliberate parallels to modern day fundamentalism and the folly of religious fervor, belief and ignorance. It is smartly done and does not compromise the story in order to become a “message movie”, only towards the end becoming more obvious – yet this is compelling and necessary, truly delving into the nature of religious extremism.

Led by the zealous Ulric (Sean Bean), the small group of battle-hardened men and a monk enter the village expecting chaos and horrors, but find a quiet little place untouched by the violence of the outside world. Led by Hob (Tim McInnerny) and suspected necromancer Langiva (Carice van Houten), the village welcomes them, but the outsiders quickly realise something isn’t right in this ungodly slice of heaven…

Christopher Smith has made a hit-and-miss collection of horror films over the past decade, with Creep, Severance and Triangle preceding this one. Black Death is more hit than miss, but it is definitely not without its faults.

Much like Severance, Smith focuses on a group of mismatched individuals, thrown into a situation they do not fully understand. Where many directors would ignore these peripheral characters until their obligatory death scenes, Smith gives these individuals actual character, and from the hard-bitten soldier to the expert torturer they all have their own voice. Andy Nyman, John Lynch and film newcomer Jamie Ballard all stand out as compelling characters. Actors such as Kimberley Nixon and David Warner also manage to shine with very little screen time, with Nixon able to make a very believable love interest you actually care for, despite barely being in the film. Kudos also goes to writer Dario Poloni, who is responsible for the hugely underrated Wilderness (2006), proving his ability to create a collection of believable characters was not a one off.

Where the minor roles expand the film and make it whole, the central performances are a solid backbone to the piece, both compelling and believable. Eddie Redmayne as the young monk Osmund is especially excellent, giving a very realistic vulnerable performance, which bounces effortlessly off the bitter, gritty characters that surround him. Even McInnerny as the town leader does very well in a serious role, constantly hiding a sense of sinister malcontent under his welcoming smile. Sean Bean and Carice van Houten perform adeptly in their roles too, not really being given much scope to expand their characters beyond the boundaries of the script – their zealous oppositional beliefs necessarily restraining them throughout. It does not make them 2D, but means they are impossible to change, and therefore totally inflexible and utterly believable.

Although the acting, story and character work is excellent, sadly the pacing is noticeably inconsistent throughout. It jumps from slow, cerebral chatting about religion and the nature of evil to insanely kinetic fights where faces are bashed in and necks are sliced clean open. Oddly too, the violence is less explicit than expected – with torture, nasty skirmishes and plague-riddled corpses not really making a huge impact as we’re only given small glimpses of them. The ending is especially disappointing, regarding the unseen fate of Tim McInnerny, and it simply fails to satisfy.

There is also a needless epilogue that feels tacked on and awkward. Although Smith may feel this is necessary in order to expand his allegory for the idiots in the cheap seats, it feels undisciplined and adds nothing to the film, just an extra stab of brutal nihilism for the audience to take home and chew on.

Black Death is a decent, deftly made film. Not violent or scary enough to be a horror, but not deep enough to be a dark drama, it sits uncomfortably in an unclear genre that is creepy, occasionally violent, oddly paced and containing an underlying message about the dangers of fundamentalism and religious fanaticism. Well acted, compelling, but flawed in places – this is an enjoyable piece of work and well worth your attention.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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