Christopher Smith is a director who always goes for the gut. His films are centered in realism, though often also with some humor, and garnished with brutality. Black Death is no exception to this, and it is quite a good film, but it lacks something of the emotional synergy of his earlier work.
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk in medieval England. The whole country is ravaged by the plague, and he urges the girl he loves, Averill (Kimberley Nixon) to flee and hide in the forest where they grew up. He doesn't leave himself. He's torn between his devotion to God and his love for young Averill. He asks God for a sign as to whether he should leave the monastery to join his love, or stay and tend to the sick. God answers by sending Ulrich (Sean Bean), the fanatical emissary from the bishop who comes to the monastery seeking a guide through the very forest to which Averill has fled.
Ulrich is seeking a small village that has escaped the plague. At first Osmund believes that this is an investigatory trip, looking for information, but he soon discovers that Ulrich and his men are on a mission to capture or kill the necromancer they believe has worked black magic to ward off the disease. These are religious warriors, skilled in torture and battle in the name of God. They are also gruff men of the world, from the torturer Dalywag (Andy Nyman) to the experienced soldier Wolfstan (John Lynch). These are no nonsense fellows doing unpleasant work.
And the unpleasantness abounds. Even before they arrive at the ensorcelled village, they experience the plague among their own group, see a woman about to be burned at the stake by terrified peasants, and battle marauding bandits. Once they reach the village, it seems peaceful enough, though clearly not populated by Christians. Their visible leader is Hob (Tim McInnerny), but the true power is the woman Langiva (Carice van Houten). She may be a witch, and may be able to bring the dead back to life, but she definitely means no good to Ulrich and his men.
Characteristic of Smith's directorial style, the violence is brutal and realistic. This isn't CG fantasy fighting a la Lord of the Rings, with elves and hobbits gliding airily about killing pig faced orcs. These are real men gutting other real men, or bashing their heads in, or what have you. The brutality also seeps into the story, which is quite harsh and unforgiving, unlike Smith's previous films, though Triangle was certainly a bleak and pitiless tale. (It at least provided the viewer with the satisfaction of solving a puzzle at the end.) Which leads to the biggest problem with Black Death: it lacks an emotionally satisfying ending. The main protagonist certainly has a character arc, but it isn't toward becoming a better person or besting a difficult task or finding inner peace. People act bravely, but not in service to a noble end, at least from the film's perspective. At other times, characters act wickedly for nearly identical motivations. The heroes seem little different from the villains. It's not that every film has to have a rah-rah, upbeat ending, but at the conclusion to Black Death the viewer is left wondering what the point of it all was.
This is not to say that it is a bad film. Not at all. The level of talent and craft on display is astoundingly high. The performances are spot on, from leads Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne, to David Warner in his tiny part as the abbot, to the extras without a single line of dialogue. Everyone inhabits the world of mediaeval England easily, not standing out or jarring the viewer. This is an ensemble piece, and every member of it contributes his bit, but no one vies for attention or overshadows their role. Redmayne is totally believable as the conflicted monk, and the viewer understands and sympathizes with him on his journey. The characters are all sharply drawn and clearly distinct, not simply carbon cutouts or generic knights errant. They all have particular foibles and motivations, and we grow to like them despite their less than stellar aspects, and the wicked mission they pursue.
The locations and sprawling vistas in Germany, where Black Death was filmed, lend an epic quality and healthy dose of verisimilitude to the venture, and the haunting images that Smith fills them with build the subtle tension throughout. The long nosed mask on the man collecting the plague dead, the shadowed grove in which Osmund thinks he sees on old friend resurrected, the cart loaded with instruments of torture that trundles across the verdant fields, all contribute to the atmosphere of eeriness and dread in the film. The hand held photography is a little overused, and a bit too shaky at times, but otherwise the film is shot wonderfully.
Overall, Black Death is a solid film, with flawless performances and a plot that carries us along without realizing we are on a trip. But the lack of any character that the audience can truly identify with and walk with through to the end leaves it with a somewhat flat conclusion. It is a very good film, but not as good as it could have been.
Bringing Black Death to Life
Interviews with Cast and Crew
Behind the Scenes Footage
HDNET: A Look at Black Death
Also From Magnolia Home Entertainment Bluray.