The medieval film is a tough one to get right. Most filmmakers often try to capture the mythical, majestic look often attributed to medieval lore, but such a shiny, whimsical view of the Middle Ages makes for a flimsy film. Such is not the case for Black Death.
Of course, Black Death is not your average medieval movie. Yes, the film revolves around a group of knights on a quest, but it is a far cry from the Ridley Scott epics or the “sword and sorcery” movies of the Eighties. Black Death is, more than anything else, a B-movie in tone, style and delivery, and like some of the better Bs out there, it is tightly executed and goes for the jugular.
Black Death begins in the 14th century as the bubonic plague — referred to as “the pestilence”– rages across Europe. Young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) resides in a monastery surrounded by the realities of the plague, and is conflicted between continuing his services to the Church and starting a new life with a local young woman with whom he has fallen in love. Osmund finds an excuse to leave the monastery for a period of time when he volunteers to act as a guide for Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of knights, dispatched by the Church to investigate a small village that has evaded the plague due to black magic, or so they believe.
British film director Christopher Smith has made a career out of making scary movies, starting with slasher films like Creep to thrillers like 2009’s The Triangle, which focused more on suspense than dismemberment. Black Death continues in this general vein, and although the film has its fair share of broadsword-induced gore, it is certainly less graphic than it could be without it being any less suspenseful.
Smith has always shown a knack for infusing his films with one over-arching mood, which has served him well in his career as a horror film director — even when his films were not at their best, they always looked like there was someone with an eye for fright behind the scenes. Black Death looks as though it was shot through some sort of ever-present gray gloom, making every action (or even inaction) contain everything from despair to foreboding suspense.
So yes, just like Smith’s other films, Black Death’s visuals will induce the heebie-jeebies, but these visuals serve a purpose beyond providing a look, and because of this, Black Death is Smith’s most mature film. Right from the beginning of the film, the tone is firmly established, which allows Smith and his actors to focus on the story. Many of the film’s characters, from knights to common townspeople, believe the plague to be a curse from the heavens, and many take it upon themselves to slaughter their neighbors to appease an apparently angry deity. Given the repulsive need for death in a world already rife with it, it becomes apparent early in the film that the “pestilence” that plagues the people is not the bubonic plague, but man’s willingness to kill one another with a false sense of divine right.
One of the real treats of Black Death is how it manages to pose a very serious — and poignant — question regarding religious fundamentalism and human nature, yet look and feel like “just a B-movie” in presentation. Smith and his team employ a number of techniques often attributed to cult and horror movies to keep the film looking like the b-side to John Boorman’s Excalibur. Everything, from the film composition to the costume design is grainy, grimy and devoid of any color, which keeps the film away from the majestic and the epic. The knights in the film appear less like those of Camelot, and more like thugs in chainmail caked in sweat and dirt.
Of course, without a decent cast, a film with great art direction just looks like an impressive puppet show. Sean Bean gives a solid performance as a somber, angry knight whose idea of doing God’s work involves killing and torturing anyone rumored to be of the Devil’s flock. At the other end of the spectrum, there is Caprice van Houten who gives an equally strong performance as the village-in-question’s matriarch, who manages to be both calming and suspicious at the same time. Eddie Redmayne, who plays the young monk, is sometimes overshadowed by Bean and van Houten, but is effective and convincing as the film’s emotional center.
Appearances can be deceiving they say, and Black Death is deceiving; one may dismiss the film as low-budget post-Oscar fodder — a British Season of the Witch if you will — but they will be pleasantly surprised. Black Death is a slow-building, well-controlled thriller that has a visceral look, but contains a thoughtful, dark message woven into the heart of the story.