Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death

Black Death

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 May

 

Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907

On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.

 

 

 

Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)

Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats. But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
  • Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
  • Old school, and effective, effects
  • Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Death – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Black Death”

  1. Set during the period of English history when the Bubonic plague spreads death across the land, a troubled young monk named Osmund is recruited by a band of soldiers to investigate a village that remains untouched. What they find there will change them forever.

    Having enjoyed Christopher Smith's previous movies ("Creep", "Severance" and "Triangle"), I had high hopes for "Black Death" and was not disappointed. Although the gore of his previous movies is still evident during the battle scenes in which arms are severed by swords and heads crushed by maces, it's largely underplayed here with the script placing greater emphasis on the story's themes of faith, religion, superstition and love. It is this emphasis, along with the various twists in the plot, which make the choices faced by the characters in the third act of the movie so very interesting.

    I was repeatedly reminded of the original "Wicker Man" whilst watching "Black Death", not only because of the central theme of a devout Christian confronting something terrible which attempts to challenge and undermine his own beliefs, but also because of the cold, bleak cinematography reminiscent of a seventies horror movie. The entire production is nicely directed and Smith utilises his horror knowledge to keep a constant and oppressive threat running throughout the film, regardless of the scene, to maximum effect. The visual effects, whether for the symptoms of the plague itself or for the various wounds suffered by the characters, are also excellent.

    The cast are universally fantastic, although Sean Bean's towering performance – portraying the leader of the soldiers and a man "more dangerous than pestilence" – steals the movie. Eddie Redmayne does well in the central role of Osmund and manages to make his character's personal journey both interesting and believable, whilst Carice van Houten is also memorable in an important role during the second half of the movie.

    I was very impressed by "Black Death" and would recommend it to those who enjoy atmospheric horror movies such as the aforementioned "The Wicker Man" or "Don't Look Now", as well as those who seek out movies set in or around this period of Britain such as "In The Name Of The Rose" and "The Reckoning". Although parts are grim and even upsetting, it's never dull and is definitely a movie worthy of your time and support.

  2. Medieval scholars will probably find substantial problems with the film's depiction of the Middle Ages, but to a non-historian it certainly feels closer than many other period movies: buildings are mostly squalid and insubstantial, the weapons and armor of the soldiers are crude and ill-assorted – Ulric (Sean Bean), the bishop's envoy, has the best of everything, while his followers are progressively less well-equipped as they descend the social scale – and it gives a good sense of the unwelcoming, sparsely-populated landscapes of medieval Britain. The casting works well too: the soldiers are, for the most part, neither Hollywood pretty-boys nor stock grotesques, but have the look of real people, 'warts and all'.

    The impression of a brutal, bleak time when life was not merely cheap but nearly worthless is reinforced by the look of the film. It's coldly lit, and everything is misty and uncertain. This distinctive atmosphere creates a feeling of constantly impending disaster without the need for the cheap frights and minor chords of a horror movie.

    The characterization is often surprisingly complex: Ulric may be a fanatic, but he's also a pragmatist who is no crueler than he needs to be. Even his soldiers are not one-dimensional brutes, but have their own personalities, with subtly-sketched human traits. The film encourages you to think about the motivation of even the most minor characters. Eddie Redmayne as Osmund does a good job of presenting a complex and conflicted character for much of the film.

    The weak point where the characters are concerned are the women. Averill (Kimberley Nixon) and Langiva (Carice Van Houten) sometimes feel more like plot devices than people. This is not the fault of the actresses, who both deliver good performances. It's just that their characters are more constrained by the requirements of the plot.

    As with any film in which religion plays a major part, there's been some debate as to whether the film is pro- or anti-Christian. To my mind, it's neither. All the characters, whichever faction they represent, are badly compromised. The only value system that it really seems to promote is that of simple humanity. It's no accident that the director gives the final voice- over to Wolfstan (John Lynch), who emerges ultimately as the film's most sympathetic character, a somewhat tarnished and world-weary ideal of what it means to be a 'good man'.

    By and large, the film works well in terms of plot and pacing. It doesn't drag, and there are few obvious plot holes. Where it falls down badly, however, is with the ending segment, which feels like a hurriedly-sketched afterthought. The fact that the director felt it necessary to deliver key material in the form of a voice-over should have warned him that he needed to rethink his approach. The film would probably have been not only complete but also stronger if that whole section had simply been cut.

    It isn't a standout film, but it's certainly an interesting one. It's well made and acted and it leaves you with plenty to think about. Any film-maker who wants to truly convey the feel of the Middle Ages – brutal and squalid, and at once alien and familiar – should watch "Black Death" and take notes.

  3. While some may see this movie as having a not so subtle undertone of 'the greatness of Christianity', I saw it as an interesting exploration of religion itself. The characters in this movie all differ in their religious views, allowing you to identify with them based on your own religious persuasion. There is the fanatic, the believer, the non believer, the good, the bad, the in between etc.

    The plot itself helps this journey, as the characters move from one setting to a vastly different one, all the while suffering the same basic experiences. Their initial motivations, in addition to their reactions to these experiences, all differ along the lines of their beliefs, and help either strengthen or weaken those beliefs. This movie shows quite well, that people's attitudes to religion have not changed in hundreds of years. God is still used to explain things we do not understand, and fear and "miracles" are still used to recruit and keep believers.

    Human behaviour also has not changed much. Even faced with the 'black death', one of the worst pandemics in human history, people still found reason to divide and fight amongst themselves assigning blame and punishment rather than band together. The way these themes fit in so appropriately with the medieval setting, makes it all the more surprising that they can still be applied in today's world. All in all, a good movie for open minded people because although the film explores these themes, it makes no conclusion. That is left to the audience to determine who was right, who was justified and who was wrong; who was good and who was evil.

  4. Set in 1348 the Black Death is at it peak, however, one village appears to be immune to the plague. Ulric (Sean Bean) devoted Christian enlist the help of a Monk (Eddie Redmayne) to lead him and his men through dangerous lands to this unholy village where it is said the dead are being brought back to life.

    Two British directors and writers really standout for me in recent years, Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, Descent and Doomsday) and Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle and Severance). Smith's latest offering has it the mark with a blend of swords, Catholicism and Wicker released the same year Neil Marshall's well advertised Centurion, which on first viewing was bloody but average compared to Marshall's other work.

    Smith's vision with marshes, fog and mists across the lands it oozes atmosphere. The gritty realistic sets and settings are note worthy, everything looks authentic and aged, perfect for first outbreak of bubonic plague. There's some great practical effects, cadavers, dismemberment's and blood. The flights are finely choreographed and swordplay is raw and relentless as limbs are hacked off.

    The latter part of the film slows down, building tension in the seemingly safe village, Smith's develops the eerie strangeness of the rural superbly, reminiscent of the Wickerman (1973 & 2006), In the Name of the Rose (1986) and The Village (2004).

    Although in fear of being typecast as another chain armoured soldier Bean gives a passionate and gripping performance, and newcomer Redmayne plays the confounded monk Osmund's admirably. The supporting cast, even though another band mercenaries are memorable and the characters are developed. Comedy actor Tim McInnerny is satisfactory in an unusual serious role as the village head. There's a notable cameo by David Warner as The Abbot. However, it's Carice van Houten who steals the show as Langiva the striking necromancer.

    There's a little too much shaky hand held camera work at times, that aside the cinematography is first rate. Dario Poloni screenplay is the icing on the cake, as the dialogue feels authentic and unforced, compared to the aforementioned other period piece. It explores religious beliefs, faith, witch hunts, occultism and much more.

    With low expectation's for another period piece, I was pleasantly surprised by Smith's vision. Certainly not perfect or the grandest film; however, it's a gripping medieval, satanic mystery action that has a nice original twist at the end.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *