Title: Black Death
Directed By: Christopher Smith
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, Kimberly Nixon, John Lynch, McInnerny, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, Jamie Ballard, David Warner
A well-made movie isn’t always an enjoyable one, but, then again, not every movie is meant to be enjoyable, per-se. Whatever director Christopher Smith’s exact intentions are for Black Death, what we’ve got is a terrifyingly ominous experience bound to put a knot in your stomach. Smith braves the odds and offers something that denies us the hyped action churned out by the Hollywood machine and aims straight for the darkest, most realistic telling possible, which is bound to earn the admiration of some, but be a bit too much for others to handle.
It’s 1348 and the Black Death is consuming scores of the European population. After sending his lover into the forest to escape the disease, a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) asks God to send him a sign to tell him if he should go after her. Shortly after, a Bishop’s envoy, Uric (Sean Bean), arrives in search of a man of God to guide him and his men to a plague–free village in the Great Marsh. It’s obvious to Osmund that this is his chance and regardless of the Father’s final foreboding warning, “even if you survive, the world out there will change you,” Osmund agrees to lead the band of warriors into the forest.
However, once away from the monastery, Uric reveals his true plan; they’re not in search of a safe haven, rather quite the opposite. The village is home to people who’ve renounced God in favor of the devil and amongst them is a necromancer, an individual with the ability to raise the dead. While the warriors gallantly and fearlessly ride into the darkness, Osmund holds on tight to his hope of reuniting with the woman he loves.
If you’re looking for a glorified knights-in-shining-armor film, look elsewhere because that Black Death certainly is not and director Christopher Smith wastes no time letting the audience know. The film kicks off right in the midst of the Black Death. Osmund’s monastery is the complete opposite of a sanctuary, rather a building consumed by suspicion, heartlessness, illness and dead bodies.
Further enhancing the seriously dark tone of this piece is Smith’s technical choices. Not only is the entire color palette quite dull, but the image itself has a graininess to it making the events feel terrifyingly authentic. Further distancing it from other films of the genre, everything in Black Death is portrayed in an incredibly realistic fashion. There’s no invincible warrior who suffers dozens of sword wounds before gracefully falling to his knees or throats being slashed with absolute perfection. Here, men are stabbed, often rather brutishly and it appears to hurt – a lot.
What makes the bloodshed even more painful is the fact that this film has some fantastic character development. Redmayne steals the show and Osmund earns most of your sympathy, but Ulric and his band of soldiers make for an impressive team of supporting characters. Almost each and every one of them, particularly Ulric and Wolfstan (John Lynch), gets their chance to shine and that extra attention makes their grand battles all the more compelling.
Black Death’s only real drawback is the element that makes it excel – the extremely gritty portrayal of this already dark story. This is certainly not a film for everyone and I find myself on the cusp. The script is well constructed, the set design and costumes right on the mark and Smith’s work admirable all-around, but it’s hard to say Black Death is an enjoyable experience. This is 102 minutes of death after death topped off with disturbingly inhumane behavior and it eats away at you. Then again, Smith really does lay everything out right from the start, so if you’re not feeling the first act of this film, that might be your cue to forgo the rest, otherwise, you’ll likely revel in his wickedly compelling adventure.
By Perri Nemiroff