Director - Christopher Smith
Cast - Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten
Country of Origin - U.K.
Discs - 1
MSRP - $26.98
Distributor - Magnolia
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 4/5
The time is 1348, the Year of Our Lord. As the bubonic plague sweeps through England decimating the population and sending the survivors into a furor of blind panic and religious intolerance a group of knights in the service of the Pope led by the cold-hearted Ulric (Sean Bean, Game of Thrones) embark on a special mission to a village they heard has not been affected by the disease. What has Ulric interested in this particular village so much is the rumor that the people are protected by the power of a necromancer who possesses the power to bring the dead back to life. Joining them on their journey is a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne, The Good Shepherd) who only volunteered for the assignment so he could escape the sanctuary of the monastery that has been hit with the plague and join his lover Averill (Kimberley Nixon, Cranford) so they can make a new life elsewhere. Once Ulric and his band of knights-which includes his second-in-command Wolfstan (John Lynch, Hardware), Dalywag the torturer (Andy Nyman, Severance), and the vicious Mold (Johnny Harris, RocknRolla)-reach the village they are welcomed with open arms by its residents and their leaders Hob (Tim McInnerny, Black Adder) and the alluring Langiva (Carice Van Houten, Black Book). But not long after their arrival the knights and Osmund start to notice that things are not what they seem. They bear witness to things their training and spiritual beliefs have not prepared them for, and Osmund finds his faith in God put to the ultimate test.
Christopher Smith is a director whose films often reward repeat viewings. They’re more thought-provoking than your average horror films. His 2004 debut Creep was a nod to the claustrophobic British fright flicks of the 1970’s. My personal favorite of his movies is Severance, a violent survival horror film in the vein of The Hills Have Eyes but with a streak of wicked humor running through it. It was one of the better horror-comedies of the last decade but it didn’t get much notice outside of Europe. Black Death, his fourth film, is his best to date, a riveting adventure into the darkest recesses of the soul of a nation ravaged by a deadly disease that most people believed was either a gift from Satan or a curse from God. Smith’s films usually call back to the classic horror films of our time, and with that mind Black Death could be his take on The Wicker Man and Mark of the Devil. Religious fervor has always been a sensitive topic but Smith, working from a smart script by Dario Poloni (Wilderness), doesn’t focus on the nature of religion in his film but rather what civilized people are prepared to do in the name of their faith, and how their belief system can always be challenged. It makes for potent drama when everything could have easily degenerated into mindless violence and gore. Granted there’s still plenty of those things, but they’re more like the proverbial icing on the cake. There’s some good action scenes as well and we get plenty of decapitations and dismemberment to keep gore hounds very happy. Yet Black Death remains primarily a character-driven drama, and a damn great one at that. Cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid gives the film a depressing, overcast look soaked in blood, mud, and stagnant swamp water, and the music score by Christian Henson is simple but effective and works well in tandem with the on-screen action rather than overwhelming it. The authentic, lived-in production design is award-worthy.
The cast is full of stand-outs but the real star of the show is Eddie Redmayne as Osmund, the lovelorn monk who faces the ultimate crisis of fate. Osmund is the only character in the film with a genuine arc that is beautifully realized thanks to Redmayne’s understated performance. The conclusion of his arc is one of the most haunting moments you will see in a movie this year and for many years to come. Next to Redmayne the cast’s most valuable player is Carice Van Houten, the lovely and gifted Dutch actress who came to international prominence in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 WWII epic Black Book but has been sorely underused in several American films since, playing arm candy for the undeserved likes of Jude Law and Tom Cruise. As Langiva Van Houten finally gets a real part to play and she does splendidly, giving her character untold dimensions with the simplest of facial expressions or the way she recites a line of dialogue. The rest of the cast do fine jobs with their roles. I liked seeing Tim McInnerny as the imposing Hob because my memories of him were as the snooty Captain Darling and the various Percys in the classic British comedy series Black Adder, but he makes an excellent heavy. John Lynch, Andy Nyman, and Johnny Harris all do professional jobs as the knights out to battle evil in the name of God. I hate to say this, but the only performance I had a problem with was Sean Bean’s. Don’t get me wrong, Bean’s a fantastic actor and he’s good here but his performance is nothing we haven’t seen before. In fact he looks so much like his Lord of the Rings character Boromir I thought he was going to start attacking hobbits and getting arrows in his chest. I chalk this up to a poorly-written role but at least Bean is permitted to add little nuances here and there, like having Ulric recite a Latin prayer before dinner or a confrontation he has with Osmund where his line “My wife and child sit at God’s side” says volumes more than any exposition-laden monologue could ever hope for.
Black Death is presented in a fantastic 2.40:1 widescreen transfer that preserves the gloriously grungy cinematography in all its splendor. The picture is supported by a robust English 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Spanish subtitles are included.
Smith doesn’t contribute a commentary but there is a generous selection of additional features to compensate, starting with four deleted scenes (5 minutes) that don’t really add anything to the narrative, but it’s nice to have them anyway. There are a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes, “Bringing Black Death to Life” (12 minutes) and “HDNet: A Look at Black Death” (4 minutes), both which suffer from occasional overlap but nicely compliment the main feature, as does the eleven minutes of raw behind-the-scenes footage and a lengthy set of brief interviews with Smith and various members of the cast and crew shot during production (33 minutes). A trailer for Black Death and previews for Vanishing on 7th Street, I Saw the Devil, 13 Assassins, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Rubber round out the bonus features.
As a director Christopher Smith continues to improve with each film. Black Death is his best work to date and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s a strong mix of intelligent drama and grim adventure with memorable images, great performances, and a haunting finale that will be burned into your brain for years.