2010 can now firmly be named ‘The Year of the Sword’, as my craving for period-based quest movies continues to be satiated with Christopher Smith’s Black Death. So far this year, I’ve reviewed Solomon Kane, Centurion, Clash Of The Titans and even the more contemporary-based (but still sword-centric) Ninja Assassin.
So where does Black Death fit in with all the others? Well, if you’re intending to watch it as part of a movie session, then you’ll definitely want to watch it first as, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be in need of a swift pick-me-up afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, Black Death is a great film, but utterly harrowing and so well put together that it left me wandering the streets of London afterwards, feeling slightly crushed under a weight of existential angst.
Such are its themes of religious zeal, faith, the influence of love and the notions of right and wrong, that it’s almost impossible not be affected by any one of them. One thing I would strongly advise is to avoid watching any more than the first half of the film’s trailer – the start will give you a good indication of how the film looks and feels, but the end will ruin any of the mystery of the journey itself.
The main thrust of the story is centred on a group of unsavoury characters, led by Sean Bean’s imposing Ulric, who are on a mission to find a village unaffected by the pestilence (rumoured to be ruled over by a necromancer) and bring the village leader to justice. The justice they speak of involves an iron maiden-esque contraption, with an axe poised at the top, which can slice a man from ‘his apple to his arse’.
The main purpose of seeking out the village isn’t to use it as a sanctuary for those who have yet to be struck down by disease, but to put an end to people questioning the Christian hold that the church has over them, with the commonly held belief being that God is punishing everyone to the point of breaking their faith. Using a young monk as a guide, who himself is in a vulnerable position of not knowing if a human or a divine love is more important, they set off on a bleak and shocking quest.
That Black Death is such a challenging and original watch is completely to its credit, as there are so few films made now that defy easy categorisation. The rag-tag ‘men on a mission’ aspect is familiar, but rarely have they been so complicated to root for and portrayed in such an exposed state, being threatened by more than just hostile surroundings and foes, with the disease itself being ever present.
Osmund, the young monk (as played by Eddie Redmayne), would be the viewer’s normal point of relation, but his youth, innocence and ignorance make him difficult to side with. Sean Bean’s towering performance easily supports the weight of the film and, combined with his look, can’t help but bring about memories of Boromir, but it’s a massive asset to the film and one that I relished (you can read my thoughts on Boromir in one of our lists here).
His presence and character fill the screen, especially as a man described as being ‘more dangerous than pestilence’, but even with his more brutal moments being balanced by some relative compassion, Ulric is still a man absolutely governed by his unrelenting faith in God and the church, and therefore not a conventional hero.
It therefore falls to a quieter side character, which is an unusual move, to keep most of our sympathies on side and it’s to John Lynch’s credit (as Wolfstan) that he does so without really making it apparent.
The moments of violence, whether they are action related or not, keep close to the feel of the rest of the film with their sheer grit and nastiness. But where Christopher Smith deserves most credit is for underplaying the gore, especially with his background in horror (Creep, Severance and Triangle), choosing to use sound as much as any visual effects. It even left someone as cinematically bloodthirsty as myself reeling from the sheer brutality of that period, especially when surrounded by such morally complex situations.
Smith does, however, utilise his horror knowledge to keep a constant and oppressive threat running throughout the film, regardless of the scene, to maximum effect.
It’s a very difficult film to write about in detail, as I make a habit of not spoiling films, choosing normally to centre on the emotional effect they’ve had on me, and I can’t even use comparisons to other films without running the risk of doing the same.
It is a film that is as compelling as it challenging, cleverly managing to avoid casting judgement over either those with firm religious beliefs, or those without. And by transcending those age old debates, it can focus on a much more universal theme: that acts of violence committed by one person on another is always wrong, regardless of the cause or justification.
So, while Black Death may not be an easy journey, it’s more than deserving of your time and money and comes highly recommended. Just make sure you’re not alone when you do it.