With a cheery subject like the bubonic plague, you’d be hard pressed to make a film that’s all sunshine and light. Christopher Smith’s new film is suitably grim, in tone as well as style; a tale of superstition and fundamentalism in the infested England of 1348.
Plague is ravishing the land, devastating the general populace and spreading panic. Even the monks are living in fear; their religion offers no protection from the spread of nasty sebaceous boils. Doubting novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) has instructed his lover Averill (Kimberley Nixon) to flee to the countryside, seemingly unconvinced by the impenetrability of his faith.
He joins the Bishop’s special envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of grizzled mercenaries on a quest to capture a necromancer rumoured to rule a remote village which has been mysteriously free of the pestilence. This is despite the protestations of the Abbot (the fantastic David Warner), who believes Ulric to be “more dangerous than the pestilence itself”.
With Osmund as their guide, the group fends off bandits and breaks up a witch trial, all the while dragging behind them a torture device mounted on a cart intended to subdue their target. Arriving at the village, everything seems pleasant – they’re welcomed with open arms, but all is not what it seems (of course) as the village is ruled by the charismatic Langiva (Carice Von Houten) and her consort Hob (Tim McInnerny).
Christopher Smith has created a bleak and savage landscape, as grim in appearance as its characters are in purpose. However, whilst he’s been moving steadily forward with innovative filmmaking (his last film Triangle was a flawed but engaging and above all, imaginative piece, obsessively and minutely planned), Black Death feels like more of a stall, perhaps because its script (by relative newcomer Dario Poloni) is the first of his directorial efforts that he didn’t also have a hand in writing.
Black Death lacks a clear protagonist and while that ambiguity gives a moral complexity that would be otherwise absent, its lack of focus undermines a solid emotional investment in its characters. Who exactly should we be cheering for? Osmund would be an obvious early choice, a young man struggling with the realities of life outside the monastery for the first time, but Eddie Redmayne is too wet to offer much more than a desultory shrug. Sean Bean as the uncompromising envoy is watchable as always but rarely rises above the role of gruff puritan; he’s given little to work with that hasn’t been seen before.
Ulric’s band of mercenaries are fundamentally single-minded, determined to strike down anyone that questions the word of God; it’s hard to have any sympathy for them. The villagers are ostensibly the innocent victims of a Christian purge, a blameless community persecuted by the long vicious arm of the fundamentalist church. But under the rule of Langiva, they perform no better, torturing and executing outsiders. It’s hard to find anyone to even like in this film, much less root for.
Black Death is a sturdy genre movie and Smith has done well to create a grimy and gruesome world that has plot which is smarter than that of your average slasher. But its unfocused characters and lack of pacing serve to hamstring a good premise and prevent it from being truly great.