Movie Review: Black Death
July 6, 2011 4 Comments
The year is 1348 and the Black Plague has ravaged the countryside, laying waste to thousands of men, women and children. With no relief in sight, emaciated bodies are piled up along the streets and the infected are left to die alone, in isolation. The church, for its part, has decreed that God has sent the pestilence as atonement for the sins of man so it’s not surprising when word that the entire populace of a village beyond the forest appears immune to the plague, the religious order believes it due to a form of necromancy and witchcraft.
The bishop deploys a group of soldiers led by his envoy, Ulric (Sean Bean looking like he just stepped off the Game of Thrones set) to investigate claims that the dead are being returned to life and capture the heretic responsible. To lead them through the forest, Ulric enlists the aid of a local monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who believes the timing of this quest is a sign from God that he should reunite with his secret lover, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), who has earlier fled the village, and now waits for him in the forest.
A large portion of the film takes place on the journey to the village, where along the way the men bond discussing the rules of mercy killing, get ambushed, stumble upon a witch burning and discover a starling secret of one of their own. Many of these scenes are anchored by the performance of the film’s narrator and Ulrich’s right-hand man Wolfstan (the excellent John Lynch).
I have a hard time classifying this as a horror film. It’s not until the group arrives at the village and we are introduced to the mysterious Langiva (Carice van Houten), do elements of the genre creep in, and even then, it’s a stretch.
What it is, however, is a dark and pessimistic film, dripping in grayish cinematography and melancholy atmosphere. It is very well done, the characters are surprisingly fully realized (even most of the supporting cast) and the performances are strong. The story is slow to unfold, but I felt it compelling throughout and the film does a fine job of keeping you guessing whether the plague is truly being kept at bay through supernatural intervention. Beyond that, and this is where the film hits its controversial tone, director Christopher Smith attempts to ask some serous questions about the virtues of Christianity.
What perhaps made this film for me, and undoubtedly will turn others off, is the last 10 minutes that serves to tie up the story. Without giving anything away, I will say it definitely fits the tone of the film quite well and in its ambiguity, asks as many questions as it answers. And that, in and of itself, is a notch above your average horror fare.