Black Death Catchy and Good
By Kristin Battestella
It took me awhile to watch the 2010 historical horror thriller Black Death after it finally arrived from Netflix. Well, golly gee, I shouldn’t have waited!
English monk Osmond (Eddie Redmayne) watches the Plague come to his monastery’s doorstep and wonders if he can serve God just as well on the outside with his ladylove Averill (Kimberley Nixon). When zealous knight Ulric (Sean Bean) comes to the monastery on a quest from the Bishop, Osmond takes the opportunity as a sign from God and leaves the Abbott (David Warner). Osmond volunteers to lead Ulric and his men on their mission to a village beyond the marsh. The village, lead by Langiva (Carice van Houten) and Hob (Tim McInnerny) is strangely untouched by the Black Death. Though Ulric insists something foul or unnatural must be at work, young Osmond is not so sure and comes to question his faith, life, death, and God.
Party like its 1348! Director Christopher Smith (Creep, Severance, Triangle) and writer Dario Poloni (Wilderness) get right to it with a non-intrusive opening narration, fear of the plague, and bodies lining the street. The audience remains knee deep in the Dark Ages via emotional characters, lofty concepts, and deadly circumstances. Devout and superstitious ideologies of the time regarding if plaques and pestilences are punishment from God or demonic doings are firmly and intelligently established in what we too simply label as just a little horror film. Although Black Death is indeed styled like a scary quest film; a road trip movie with a rag tag group of warriors traveling far, duking it out, and dying in creative ways just to destroy the bad guys. There’s a bit of humor, too- blaming the plague on the French or going out with some anachronistic defiance and curses. Actually, the camaraderie among our not so merry band reminds me of Neil Marshall’s Centurion. And of course, some of Black Death’s themes can seem like a repeat now thanks to the similar but much maligned Season of the Witch (It’s 6% Rotten, that’s all I’m saying about that Nicholas Cage drivel!) Yes, Ulric and his boys run around and swordfight a lot. However, there’s a dang good story with spiritual depth, fine action and cinematography, and a stylishly spooky setting. What’s not to like? Black Death has some sweet battle fare and some nice shocks and scares. The intriguing spin here is more than the usual burn at the stake fair, which we don’t see all that much anymore anyway. The dialogue is delivered rhythmically and seriously despite talk of demons and necromancers being responsible for the plague. Performance and plot are not at the mercy of the gore, which is the easy norm and quick routine horror trend today.
Well, Sean Bean looks a little Boromir here thanks to our imprinted image of him from Lord of the Rings, sure, and his new stateside success with Game of Thrones certainly contributes. But he’s so dang good at riding in to save the day! Ulric has a job to do and believes God is on his side, and he will do anything to get it done. He tells someone to move out of his way, he moves. Ulric is a great, godly menace, righteous yet unflinching in his gruesome ways. He doesn’t think twice about a mercy killing or ordering the deaths of the ill that jeopardize his mission. Ulric also doesn’t reveal the details of the task at hand until absolutely necessary. Why does he automatically think everything is evil or at the very least, the worst, first? On Ulric’s suspicion alone we think foul things are afoot at the Circle K- and it effing works. But then… well, I can’t give it all away. Suffice to say, I was gasping at the television and covering my mouth, shocked, I tell you, shocked!
Despite Bean’s top billing and prominence on the artwork, Eddie Redmayne’s (The Pillars of the Earth, The Other Boleyn Girl) monk Osmond is the character with which the audience identifies most. His relationship with Kimberley Nixon (Cherrybomb) is believable, yet Osmond also wants to faithfully serve God in any way possible. Redmayne is a pleasant antithesis to Bean- in both stature and philosophy. However, how different are Osmond and Ulric really? Can each be both warrior and priest? Can Ulric be an action man of God laying down his sword for his beliefs? Can Osmond take up violence to save what he believes in? After all, isn’t killing in the name of the Lord still just killing? Is Ulric- believing himself to be sent by God- more religious than Osmond- who started the journey for his own desires? Is it better to hide away in a church and pray or be in the cruel world slaying evil? This is not a religious movie per se, but the questions raised by both men’s ways add an emotional and intelligent dimension to Black Death.
It may take half the movie to meet the supposed necromancer Langiva, but the budding build and fine mystery set off Carice van Houten’s (Valkyrie, Repo Men) eerie performance. Why yes, what is so wrong with a monk loving a woman? Maybe God’s divine love isn’t enough for a man after all. Maybe the plague is punishment from God, not an evil curse like the ruling Christians say. But that is just like the trickery of a witchy woman, isn’t it? Are not these temptations exactly what the too good to be true promises of the devil offer? Do we really merely need miracles or someone in which to believe? Who is on the right side in Black Death? Houten encapsulates all this juiciness perfectly. Likewise, Tim McInnerny (Blackadder) is creepy as Langriva’s would be partner in crime, Hob. John Lynch (In the Name of the Father) also stands out as Wolfstan, the voice of reason among Ulric’s troupe. However, Andy Nyman (Death at a Funeral) as Dalywag, Dutch thespian Tygo Gernandt as Ivo, and Johnny Harris (Whitechapel) as Mold are not only stuck with some really weird names; but they are cut from a little too much of the same cloth. It’s the polite way of saying they are all the same and serve the usual purposes of good swordplay or dramatic death. Does it hamper the film? Not at all- although I would have liked more from David Warner (Doctor Who, Hornblower) as the cranky Abbott instead.
Fortunately, Black Death’s design is almost a player unto itself. The scoring is on form- properly action, but also old school with Latin chants. The music and sound effects know when to be silent just as much as they put the exclamation on the big moments. Though the photography is a little dark in some spots, the video style works as if we the viewers are reporters riding along with the recording equipment. Black Death has a dirty realism- this is not the good old Knights of the Round Table shiny and spectacle fifties flair. The robes, chain mail, cool medieval kirtles and gowns, sweet churches and monastery design go a long way in creating both the lovely medieval we expect and the poor desperation of the time. Langiva is also wonderfully styled in rich red in a picture with an otherwise natural and devoid palette. The German locations- from mountains and forestry to snowscapes- look stunning. Despite its deadly subject matter, Black Death is a beautiful film. It’s both aesthetically pleasing to modern audiences who expect stylized visuals and realistically accurate enough for historical fans.
Of course, there are the obligatory and ridiculous previews on the blu-ray rental copy; but due to some of the darker photography and stunning locations, I can’t imagine seeing this on DVD. Naturally, subtitles are needed for all the wacky names and soft religious debates, too. There are also plenty of features on the blu-ray set, including deleted scenes, cast interviews, making of shorts, and behind the scenes treats. The cut scenes aren’t even the kind that are bad and deleted for a reason. They lengthen the journey and provide more detail about the beliefs and actions of our crack medieval team. At less than 5 minutes, I don’t know why they were excised from the film. It’s also nice to hear the film was shot chronologically to up the tension as they went along. You would think more films would do this and not go out of order- folks acting on meeting each other after they’ve already died and all that- but I digress.
Naturally, this is not a film for kids thanks to the violence, torture, blood, and subject matter. Actually, big surprise, Black Death is kind of a morbid movie, even a little depressing. Slice and dice heavy horror fans might not like the seriousness and debates here. However, old school audiences longing for more truth, realism, and intelligence in their scares can find what they are looking for with Black Death. In some ways, I don’t even want to call this a horror film. This is a thrilling drama with horrific events, yes, but it has equal amounts of both- enough to appease even none horror or historical and mildly gothic fans. Please please please do not let any bitter tastes left from Season of the Witch put you off here. Once again, American theatrical audiences were instead given that p.o.s. when we could have gotten a little Black Death instead. Catch it ASAP.
(On a side note, I wonder what would happen if one watched Black Death and Centurion together with picture in picture? It would almost be like having Sean Bean and Michael Fassbender in one movie! Good God.)