Christianity is a lot like baseball. It doesn’t hold much real-world interest for me, but it often makes for excellent cinema. Such is the case with Black Death. Dripping with medieval period grime, this is a good ol’ fashioned Jesus versus pagan film (kind of The Name of the Rose by way of The Wicker Man, with some Braveheart battle splatter thrown in for good measure). While the end result just barely qualifies as a horror film, removed from the context of Screamfest that matters none. Black Death is a first-class genre flick, loaded with action, great characters, and providing a few unexpected surprises – the biggest of which is that the film manages to be as entertaining philosophically as it is kinetically.
As the title might have tipped you off, the film takes place during the height of the bubonic plague. Osmund (The Pillars of the Earth’s Eddie Redmayne), is a young English monk with a secret – he is in love with a girl, Averill (Kimberley Nixon). When one of the monks in Osmund’s monastery dies of the plague, Osmund determines that the “Black Death” isn’t the work of God, and thus even the holy are in danger. Averill must leave the city, but Osmund refuses to abandon his faith and join her. The girl gives him a location at which she will wait every morning for a week, and then be gone forever. Torn between spiritual and secular love, Osmund prays to God for a sign. And his prayer is answered in an unlikely way…
A group of knights and mercenaries, lead by the stoic Ulric (006 himself, Sean Bean), arrive asking the monks for a guide to take them to a remote village nestled amongst the marshland. The village remains untouched by the plague, and rumor says it is because the village has made a pact with the Devil. Ulric has been charged by the King to capture the necromancer who supposedly leads the village and return this servant of Satan to suffer God’s justice before the royal court. The village they seek lies near the locale where Averill waits, so Osmund agrees to be Ulric’s guide, taking this as the sign he asked for. After some bloody disasters along the way, the envoy reaches the seemingly idyllic village, which unshockingly harbors some strange secrets. When the shit hits the fans, Osmund finds himself torn between his faith and the pagan secrets of the village.
The first half of Black Death is predictably episodic, giving solid entertainment, but not offering much that we haven’t seen a million times. We get plenty of scenes and dialogue laying out the contrast between the naive and optimistic Osmund, who has been sheltered behind the walls of his monastery, and the worldly and pessimistic knights and mercenaries, who have seen and stabbed it all — Osmund tries to help a woman accused of being a witch, and is given a taste of the real world when things don’t go the way he planned. When Osmund sneaks off to look for Averill, he accidentally leads a group of bandits back to the camp. Battle! Punch! Slash! Mace-to-the-face! Threats! Apologies! The action in Black Death is well done, though with fairly conventional execution. Lots of quick cuts and frenzied camera work. Things don’t get truly interesting until the group reaches the village and we start playing with the religious themes of the film.
Sean Bean is the biggest star in the film, so he of course takes on the brunt of the film’s marketing, but he is a supporting character. This is Osmund’s story. At the beginning of the film, the script kind of buries the lead with Osmund, as we learn he’s a monk with a girlfriend before we learn much else about him. I had to play a little catch-up within these early scenes to confirm that monks indeed aren’t supposed to have girlfriends (like I said, Christianity doesn’t hold much real-world interest for me. Maybe some monks can have girlfriend. I don’t know). A religious man thrown amongst heathens who upset his faith, Black Robe-style, is a pretty standard story. What I liked about Osmund’s situation is that the mercenaries are all very religious themselves. Ulric in particular is extremely religious, but in a very violent and angry Crusader kind of way. Osmund is God’s love; Ulric is God’s wrath. So their butting of heads in inherently nuanced. If they can’t both be right, what does that say of their God?
The village is the opposite of everything we’ve seen from the Christian world. Osmund’s monastery, and the brick-and-stone city that surrounds it, are dirty and worn. All the humans we see – knights, monks, villagers – are dirty and frayed, and quite often plagued the fuck up and dying. The village is Earthy and wooden… and clean. The people are bright and smiling. The village is also matriarchal, a pretty lady, Langiva (Black Book’s Carice van Houten; sorry fellas, don’t get to see her dye her pubes this time around) runs this joint. The knights lie about their purpose at the village. The villagers pretend not to notice the obvious lie. A ruse of hospitality ensues, with a thick carpet of dread underneath everyone’s feet.
The acting is excellent all around in the film. There are no weak links. Eddie Redmayne makes Osmund seem like he’s perpetually on the verge of collapsing into a crying jag, he’s so worried and weary the whole film. He’s got a good face for this kind of period character. And has Sean Bean ever varied in performance? The dude is always on the money. Plus it helps that he’s generally playing the exact same character (although he doesn’t double-cross or betray anyone here). The stand out of the mercenaries is John Lynch, as Wolfstan, the religious compass of the group, who has an excellent scene where he passionately tries to convince another member not to betray God (can’t really explain the context of the scene without spoiling anything). The one sadness in the casting is David Warner (looking old as fuck and awesome as hell). Sad because his character, the head of Osmund’s monastery, isn’t in much of the film. Someone get this man’s career back in order! I miss you, Warner.
I think a lesser film would have staunchly taken a side, one way or the other, on the Christianity vs Pagan philosophical battle that Osmund finds himself at the center of. But that’s one of the things I like about Black Death, it takes a disconnected stance. In ways it both condemns and reinforces the notion of faith (of any kind, in anything), especially in the ways our various heroes and villains “win” and “lose” in the end. A great moment, which exposes the heart of the film, I think, comes near the end when Wolfstan has one of the villagers bound and asks the man why he followed Langiva and not God. The man says, “Because she is beautiful.” It is a ridiculous spit in the face of all that Wolfstan believes, and the importance of the line goes even deeper in the context of why Langiva thinks the villagers follow her (also won’t spoil). Faith is potentially always misguided.
Certain elements of the ending may prove predictable to particularly
savvy viewers, but I guarantee that you won’t see the film’s awesome resolution
coming. Black Death‘s only failing is that it lacks the kind of truly amazing and/or iconic moments needed to bump it up from Really Good to Great.