Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Dario Poloni
Cinematographer: Sebastian Edschmind
Starring: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, David Warner, Carice van Houten
Studio/Runtime: Magnet Releasing/97 min.
A group of adventurers wandering off together into foreign lands is a well-worn staple of high fantasy. But despite having The Lord of the Rings’ Sean Bean once again don a suit of armor, Black Death is set far from those fantastic realms. In fact, it’s much closer in many respects to a historical (if inaccurate) horror story, set during the height of the black plague in England. Bean, Eddie Redmayne and their companions head off into an uncharted area in search of a supposed necromancer whose village has been saved from the plague through witchcraft. But this isn’t a film about sorcery, it’s about belief, and the group soon finds itself embroiled in the religious struggles of this outlying village.
Director Christopher Smith’s version of the middle ages is extremely grim, which grounds the film’s characters in reality yet lends the picture as a whole an almost mythic setting. Its low budget is hidden behind the details of a world being ripped apart, with every floorboard about to break and every nail rusting through. It’s so far removed from traditional historical epics as to function as a work of implicit criticism, and much of the film’s best moments come from watching its well-written characters interact realistically with the horrors of the world around them.
The setting plays into Black Death’s primary thematic concern as well, which is about the depth of faith and its relationship with intolerance. While straightforward, the film’s screenplay twists repeatedly without ever breaking from its 14th century setting (even when it may at first appear to), and is clever in a way that doesn’t also feel cheap. Its constant questioning of what faith can mean to different people is complex but feels like part of the plot, not something shoehorned in later. The end result is that the film’s themes and story feel just as organic as the rest of the picture, and while the pacing slows down a little halfway through the movie, it’s only because of a need for a break before its dark and memorable ending.
Black Death’s bleak view of humanity makes the picture a hard sell for multiplexes, but it has much more action than for instance an Ingmar Bergman picture interested in exploring the same ideas. The way the film sets its serious concerns on a pulpy foundation creates a unique experience, satisfying in its execution if perhaps verging on nihilism. There’s no glory for Black Death’s mercenaries at the end of their journey, but for the audience there’s a fascinating take on religion and morality that also features some pretty decent swordplay—and really, how much more can a movie offer?
Watch the trailer: