Though its title must rank as one of the most off-putting in film history, Black Death isn't as bad as you might fear. It is unquestionably very grim, but the fresh-faced Eddie Redmayne gives an achingly soulful performance to counter the gore and the generally dark, disease-ridden air of 14th century England. He stars as a young monk struggling to keep the faith as the bubonic plague goes biblical, but a typically gruff Sean Bean has no such trouble as a crusading knight of the realm. Together they are the angel and the devil sitting on the shoulder of organised religion.
It's a simple yet ambitious story by horror helmer Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle) because it touches on contemporary concerns about the evil done in the name of God. In 1348 superstition is as rife as the great plague with some believing that it is God's punishment and others, the devil's work. Osmund (Redmayne) doesn't have much time for the devil, but when rumours abound that a witch has managed to fend off the pestilence in a village across the marshland, he offers his services as a guide to the investigating cavalrymen led by Ulrich (Bean).
As they head out on horseback the tone shifts slightly. It feels like a quest to slay the dragon, only Osmund isn't so keen on the slaying part. He hopes to dispel the myth of witchcraft whereas Ulrich prefers to go in with his sword swinging, just in case. The point is made painfully clear (in the jugular) when they pass by a mob set to burn a local woman. The violence is appalling, but Smith doesn't exploit it. This is the kind of horror film where the context is more important than the carnage itself and that may disappoint those just looking for cheap thrills on a Saturday night.
On arrival at the village, the mood changes again with shades of The Wicker Man sans '70s psychedelia. It's an awkward transition and Carice van Houten performs to type as the suspected witch who messes with Osmund's impressionable young mind. Her big claim to fame is an ability raise the dead which comes in handy as Osmund is crippled with guilt over the recent demise of Averill, his secret love (Kimberely Nixon). It's the dilemma that van Houten presents in her resurrected form which is the most intriguing aspect of the film. A scene where Osmund wades through the marsh, shell-shocked, feels like a damper re-imagining of Christ's temptation.
Though he reaches for higher meaning, Smith never quite hits those heights. The finale plays like a medieval version of Saw and though it's not too graphic, it is wearying. Ulrich gets singled out for especially cruel and unusual punishment, but it's difficult to feel his pain because he remains an enigma. Essentially, Ulrich is all posture instead of a fully fleshed out character and his relationship with Osmund fails to bring out his humanity in a convincing way. Osmund is a much more complex figure and Redmayne (perhaps best known for playing Angel in a BBC adaptation of Tess Of The D'Urbervilles) has a natural pulling power whether he's being good or bad. It's his performance that keeps the film from sinking to bog-standard.
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