Squeezing in more soul and originality into its compact running time than a quiver-full of bloated Robin Hood remakes could ever hope to, Christopher Smith’s Black Death is a down and dirty foray into medieval England which should satisfy both action fans and those looking for something a little more thoughtful from their cinema.
It’s the 13th century, and the bubonic plague is sweeping England, leaving a decimated populace wondering if this is a sign from God or a natural disaster. As young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) sends his girlfriend, Averill (Kimberly Nixon), into hiding before she becomes the next victim, his uncertainty about both his feelings for the girl and his dedication to the Church leads him to seek guidance from above.
A potential saviour soon arrives in the shape of a knight, Ulric (Sean Bean), sent from the Bishop to recruit a guide into the nearby marshland. Ulric and his men are on the hunt for a necromancer alleged to be protecting a village from the plague and it’s up to them to bring God to the villagers, not by prayer but by the edge of their swords.
Concisely setting up the story’s premise within the first 10 minutes, a welcome cameo by horror veteran David Warner confirming the film’s genre roots, Smith is then free to build up a convincing world of blood soaked morals and religious uncertainty around his characters.
The views of Osmund and Ulric are outlined early on as they encounter a lynch mob preparing to burn a suspected witch at the stake. While Osmund begs forgiveness for the woman, Ulric knows that her fate is already sealed, his solution to the problem another pointer that the heroes of the piece aren’t about to be drawn in straightforward black and white.
Though ostensibly the film’s lead, Bean, in full Lord of the Rings-mode, receives less screen time than Redmayne, who is the viewer’s way into this world. Hidden away in the bowels of the monastery, Osmund’s desire to help uncover the work of the Devil comes not out of his need to serve God, but rather to be with his woman, a determination played well by the engaging Redmayne.
This isn’t to say that Bean is sidelined, his portrayal of the battle-scarred Ulric a welcome presence in a film which thankfully doesn’t boast an abundance of celebrity stunt casting. The names and roles of Ulric’s party may blur slightly after their cursory introduction, but there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie between them which helps as their journey gets ever more dangerous.
While the tussles with rogue bandits may help raise the body count for those looking for some bloodthirsty swordplay, it’s the mystery at the film’s centre that helps raise it above mere slasher movie territory. Smith’s camera is always in and about the action, some inspired point of view shots giving variety to otherwise standard sequences.
Though Dario Poloni’s script can hardly be said to be subtle in its depiction of a red-blooded world of knights and violence, it also manages to nimbly skirt around the issues of religion, paganism and belief, leaving both those on screen and in the audience wondering exactly what does lie at the heart of a village seemingly ruled by a witch and her unwitting followers. This is a genre film alright, but exactly what genre that is depends on the personal views, and demons, of the viewers.
Thanks to the pairing of a placid Tim McInnerny as Hob and the smouldering Carice van Houten as Langiva, the black arts have never looked so appealing. A much needed shot of femininity in a testosterone-fuelled picture, van Houten’s assuredness is a perfect match for Redmayne’s naivete.
Building gradually towards its unpredictable climax, and causing more than a few tense moments as along the way, this delivers far more than a low budget genre movie has any right to: here’s hoping Black Death goes some way to stealing from Robin’s box office takings this summer as it’s clear which one deserves the riches.
Black Death is on limited release in the UK