Directed by: Christopher Smith
Premise: Set in England during the outbreak of the bubonic plague, a young monk leads a group of soldiers to an isolated village that is believed to be protected from disease by a pact with the devil.
What Works: In terms of cinematic craft, Black Death is a well-made film. It is a period piece but it steps away from the story formula and visual conventions of the genre. The script and the actors avoid some of the very overly dramatic and stagy dialogue or blocking that historical films often fall into. Instead a lot of the performances are much more natural and as a result the characters possess more reality to them than characters in similar films. The lead actor, Eddie Redmayne, does a great job as the monk. He avoids the stereotypes of holy men on film; the character is human and struggles with desire and Redmayne creates a lot of empathy for this man. Also impressive is Carice van Houten as the matriarch of the village. She is very mysterious and she has a lot of presence in a very limited amount of screen time. Black Death is also effective in its portayal of violence. Although there are some very gruesome events, the scenes are shot and edited very judiciously, using sound to convey the mutilation, which helps the violence retain its power as the film goes on. This story is partly a mystery and as the moral crusaders arrive at the village, the film plays the ambiguity of the situation for maximum effect. It could be that the soldiers are right and the village is damned or the villagers could be entirely innocent victims of religious zealotry. The script of Black Death sidesteps both of these dualistic options and aims for a more complex and thematically interesting answer to that question, and looking at the picture as a whole this film can be taken as a dramatization of the ways guilt and fear get externalized and result in pain and intolerance for others. Those themes are a little under developed but Black Death does enough to at least raise some questions.
What Doesn’t: The thematic strengths of Black Death are weakened by a major misstep in the conclusion. The film includes a coda sequence on the ending that is way too brief; it is more like a preview for another film than a logical extension of the plot and themes of the story. It also should be noted that although this is a historical film there is very little in it that is relevant or accurate in regards to the religious politics of the time period. That said, most historical films, even those that are lauded by mainstream critics and win Oscars, are usually not accurate either and this is more a folk tale than a historical piece, so Black Death’s fast and loose dealings with reality are pardonable.
Bottom Line: Black Death is a unique film. Its ideas are not entirely coherent but it is certainly more interesting than a lot of other historical films. Fans of The Wicker Man, Apocalypse Now, Witchfinder General, or Elizabeth should check it out.
Episode: #332 (March 27, 2011)