With a screenplay written by Dario Poloni and directed by Christopher Smith (Creep), Black Death is a fantasy-horror film set in 1378 during the outbreak of the bubonic plague in England. Dark, gory and with a twist on history, it is a film I have been meaning to check out for some time, and finally got around to it recently.
An assembly of soldiers, led by Ulrich (Sean Bean), seek the guidance of a monk, and Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young man of god, offers his assistance in helping the group carry out “the will of God”. They seek a necromancer who is, in Ulrich’s mind, responsible for bringing people back to life in a small township that had turned its back on God. They reach the town to find that they have managed, unlike everywhere else the group has seen, to avoid the plague and seem to have made a deal with darker forces in order to survive. The soldiers must find answers while also trying to avoid falling prey to this strange town that lives life in a way they feel is despicable and satanic.
Aside from Redmayne and Bean, the cast includes some excellent British acting talent. John Lynch (Angel Baby) as Wolfstan, Tim McInnerny (Severence) as Hob, Kimberley Nixon (Offender) as Averill and David Warner (The Omen) as Abbot among many others, and non-British performers, such as Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones) as the main antagonist of the tale, Langiva. It’s a good cast that offer a variety of character-types and bring decent-to-good performances to the table. The film also looks good, much better than I had expected. I had worried, prior to watching, that the film would feel cheap, but I was pleasantly surprised. It looks the part, and the rural destinations are often really beautiful, only to be splashed by visceral entrails and bleeding faces. Redmayne is the character who you tend to get behind for much of the film, and his emotional depth is brought out, showing more than just a couple of responses to the things he’s going through, but it’s Bean’s Ulrich who is the standout. A role that is fairly familiar for Bean (he looks similar to how he did in the likes of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones), he has a tortured past behind his eyes and an unpredictable nature that makes him eye-catching and intriguing throughout the film.
It has a dark tense atmosphere and a curious feel to it and when the group of sword and axe wielding soldiers reach the village that they are seeking, it opens many questions as to what exactly is going on, keeping us guessing and providing an intriguing twist and turn to the proceedings. Paganism and Christianity go head-to-head, and there are some truly gruesome scenes here in the battle sequences, which was good to see. Most, if not all of it, looked to be practically done too which was a definite positive.
The film isn’t perfect though. While I appreciated the pace, I did feel like there were a few occasions where I wanted the saunter to turn to a mild-sprint. I also felt like the abundance of characters in the main brigade of soldiers meant that beyond three of them, we didn’t really get to know a great deal about them, and in actuality, learned only a little bit about the main characters anyway. This was a bit of a hindrance to the story and left me feeling like I didn’t care enough for the likes of Ulrich and Osmund, though I wanted to. I will also say that I had a bit of a problem with the shaky-cam scenes which occurred on a fairly regular basis during the movie. I found it hard to stomach and it made me feel a bit dizzy from time to time, and I don’t feel like it added anything to it, but rather made it harder to enjoy. I did like the locations, the music, the acting and the story though, there were just a few niggles that put a small wall in the way of me fully enjoying the film as much as I could have. I think it is an underrated film though, and gets nowhere like as much attention as it should. It looks at a period seldom looked at and offers an interesting mission amidst it. It also should cross-over with its appeal due to its dipping of its toes into horror, fantasy, action and adventure.
A grim tale filled with brutal action, top-notch performances, an excellent cast and magnificent locales, Black Death does much more right than it does wrong, and in doing so allows me an ability to look past its flaws and enjoy what it has to offer.