Black Death is directed by Christopher Smith and written by Dario Poloni. It stars Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch, Tim McInnerny, Kimberley Nixon, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris and Carice van Houten. Music is scored by Christian Henson and cinematography by Sebastian Edschmid.
1348, Year of our Lord, the bubonic plague is ravaging Europe. When word spreads of an isolated community that is plague free, a gang of Gods' soldiers are tasked with seeking it out under the impression it might be a haven to occult dealings. Guiding the group is rookie monk Osmund (Redmayne), who after falling in love with a young girl is conflicted about his faith. He takes the soldiers' request for a guide as a sign to find his true calling, what he and the soldiers find at the end of their journey, however, has far reaching consequences for them all.
Considering it was a limited release in theatres it's a little surprising to find so many have sought it out on home format release. What isn't surprising, given its themes, is how it has polarised opinions. Personally I love it, this in spite of director and writer cribbing from notable Brit movies of our past. Yet even when I was in the supposed sanctuary of our home during this latest visit to the film it was met with derision from the lady love of my life! After director Smith (Severance/Triangle/Creep) has well and truly pulled the rug from underneath us to tantalisingly leave things ambiguous, he slots in a coda that muddies things still further, simultaneously infuriating another portion of the movie watching populace. I write this because of two reasons, the first is to obviously intrigue potential first time watchers into taking the plunge and giving it a go, the second is to negate the underselling of the movie by its own director!
Somewhere along the way Smith chose to not sell it as a battle between religion and atheism-Christians against Pagans, but went for the more pleasingly medieval men on a mission aspect, which for the first half of the movie it is. Perhaps those sneaky loans from the revered films that have influenced it weighed heavy on the director post the release and critical appraisals? But undeniably it's the second half that carries the thematic thrust. True enough to say that following a chainmail clad Sean Bean and his grungy band of "mercs" traverse the land, fighting off bandits and the plague along the way, is good formulaic fun, but it's when they happen upon the marshy set village, greeted by a ghostly Carice van Houten and a unnervingly smiley Tim McInnerny, that the film really hits its stride. Thus opening up debates as the battle for Osmund's soul truly begins and we are asked just who are the good and bad guys here?
Filmed out in the forests of Saxony Germany, the film looks terrific in the context of the period it is set. The colours are deliberately stripped back and muted, this plague ravaged land, and persons, demand that to be the case. There's some initial annoyance with the "shaky-cam" formula during the more up-tempo sequences, this is something that is becoming a staple requirement by directors of historical pictures, but Smith thankfully doesn't over do it and achieves good atmospheric realism throughout. It's interesting to note that the Pagan villagers are clean and sprightly, while the Christian soldiers are grimy and grotty, life of the medieval soldier was bloody and bloody dirty work. When the excellent Andy Nyman as Dalywag takes a leak up a tree, he merely wipes his newly whetted hand on his tunic, it's little things like this that keep the film in the realm of realism, an awareness of the time indeed. Cast attack the material with good thespian seriousness, with Lynch and Harris scoring well as polar opposite characters in the supporting ranks of Ulric's (Bean) band of not so merry men.
It's not overly gory, Smith choosing (correctly) to let us at times fill in the blanks in our head, while the fight scenes are very well staged (Bean was very pleased with how they turned out). But ultimately it's the themes in the story and period setting that is of the most interest here. What ever side of the fence you sit on as regards religion, or how you feel about humanity being depicted so coarsely, Black Death will get a reaction out of you. 7.5/10