Starring: Sean Bean, Carice Van Houten, Eddie Redmayne. David Warner, Andy Nyman
Director: Christopher Smith
Writer: Dario Paloni
Cinematography: Sebastian Eschmid
Original Score: Christian Henson
Running Time: 102 Mins.
Pestilence, so says Sean Bean’s knight, on a mission from the Bishop, many times during Black Death, if ever a film was worthy of being branded pestilent this is it, but mark my words this is not bad thing. Marketed as a film in the vein of Solomon Kane, a cheesy and comic-booky take on medieval times, this is as far removed from that film as any, it is also not an action packed romp through the middle ages that takes in heroic sword-fights and worthy knights, yes there is one fight scene but that in itself is more a skirmish that sees no victory for our “heroes”. In fact liken Black Death to any film and it would have to be the atmospheric brood of The Wicker Man.
Here Sean Bean is no hero and there is no big bad deity to be conquered, rather he is a knight seeking the one village that has escaped the pestilence (see, it’s that word again!) of the titular black death. Seen as either one of two things the disease itself is branded as either the work or the devil or God depending on your beliefs, needless to say Bean’s knight Ulric and his band of warriors are firmly in the band that feels it is the former aided in part by witches, so with the guidance of a Monk (Redmayne) these men aim to find the village and dispose of the “Necromonger” who is up to the Witchcraft that is keeping the disease at bay from their people.
Unlike recent medieval romps Solomon Kane and the forthcoming Nic Cage Starrer Season of the Witch, this is not a bawdy action film that wears a cheesy nature with pride, no this is set in a land where death eeks at every turn and indeed from every frame, choosing to focus on character over action meaning it is a film punctuated with performance and drama rather than sword fight and siege. The first half of the film acting as something of a medieval road movie simpering with a sense of dread of the horrific events we know will eventually unfurl, ever-present in the form of a torture cage attached to the back of the horse and cart the men travel with.
Then when the band of men finally reach the village The Wicker Man comparisons become abundantly apparent, to say much more of the occurences there would be to spoil the expertly built suspense but needless to say it doesn’t end well for many. Carice Van Houten makes for a convincing witch but the interesting thing is we are never in doubt who we should root for character wise, but given the questions raised with regards to God and religion there is a hard to swallow air about whether Ulric’s band of men have a legitimate reason for their brutal mission.
But it is in the atmospherics that Black Death is won, director Christopher Smith who presided over Creep and Severance, both hugely gory Brit-horror’s, is an expert at creating a mood and the dial here is set very much to the aforementioned “pestilent”! This feels like a genuine depiction of the times of great hardship, women are generally hideous, everyone has browning teeth, suit’s of armour are believably rusty and everyone has their own agenda, even though they are god fearing/worshipping men! It is also nice to see a bit of restraint when it comes to the actual scenes of gore, shocking yes but not gratuitous surprisingly given Smith’s pedigree, finally a director has embraced the less is more mantra leaving you with a rather nasty taste in your mouth upon walking from the film, and quite frankly in a film that’s called Black Death you can ask for nothing better.
Black Death is a pestilent film personified, reeking a desperate and grim atmosphere it is an experience that any film dealing with such harsh times should be…and more, Aided by a clutch of convincingly shady performances director Christopher Smith has a forged a great, and grim, filmic experience.