The fumes of the dead are in the air: Black Death

Black Death (2010)

Bleak, intelligent and thought-provoking, this unfairly neglected blend of medieval drama and horror should have gotten a lot more attention than it did

Black Death


Di­rect­ed by Christo­pher Smith. Writ­ten by Dario Poloni and Christo­pher Smith (un­cred­it­ed). Star­ring Sean Bean, Ed­die Red­mayne, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Tim McIn­nerny, Kim­ber­ley Nixon and Andy Ny­man.

In times of Game of Thrones, Black Death could have been a suc­cess. Now that the HBO se­ries is one of the most watched tele­vi­sion shows at the mo­ment, it is hard not to look back at this near­ly-for­got­ten Ger­man-British gem from 2010 and think that, had it been re­leased to­day, it would have prob­a­bly not be­come the box-of­fice flop that it turned out to be. By all stan­dards, Black Death had an in­signif­i­cant rev­enue in Ger­many ($242,764), the UK (£128,668) and even the USA ($22,554). But with the re­cent re­vival of the me­dieval fan­ta­sy sub­genre pro­pelled by Game of Thrones, things could have been quite dif­fer­ent, and the fact that it stars not one but three vet­er­ans of that TV show makes every­thing all the more iron­ic.

Di­rect­ed by Christo­pher Smith (Tri­an­gle), who also made un­cred­it­ed rewrites on Dario Poloni’s script, Black Death takes place in 1348 AD, dur­ing the first record­ed out­break of the bubon­ic plague in Eng­land, which hit Eu­rope in 1347 and dec­i­mat­ed a third of its pop­u­la­tion. Os­mund, played by Ed­die Red­mayne, is a young monk who doesn’t show symp­toms of the dis­ease and re­fus­es to be­lieve like the oth­ers that the plague is God’s pun­ish­ment for the sins of mankind. When a group of knights led by Ul­ric (Sean Bean) ar­rives at the monastery with or­ders from the Bish­op to take a monk as a guide through the for­est, Os­mund vol­un­teers to join, be­liev­ing this to be a sign from God. Their mis­sion is to find a re­mote vil­lage mys­te­ri­ous­ly un­touched by the plague and cap­ture a necro­mancer who seems to have the pow­er to bring the dead back to life.

Com­bin­ing in the same film ugly scenes of dirt, pesti­lence and hu­man de­cay with stun­ning vi­su­al com­po­si­tions in which we can see the light path as it pen­e­trates the crowns of trees and the slight­ly smoked up rooms of the monastery, Smith cre­ates some­thing that strong­ly re­sem­bles the evoca­tive aes­thet­ics of Game of Thrones, only his movie was made one year be­fore the se­ries even be­gan. It is a cu­ri­ous choice, to make a film that looks so strik­ing­ly bleak and yet gor­geous like a paint­ing, but it cer­tain­ly works, as it evokes the hor­rors of the Mid­dle Ages in a so­phis­ti­cat­ed pack­age. This is some­how re­flect­ed in the equal­ly un­ob­tru­sive way that his nar­ra­tive blends me­dieval dra­ma and what ap­pears to be a su­per­nat­ur­al force at work.

But if all that is enough to raise com­par­isons with the se­ries (which is not re­al­ly fair since the movie came be­fore it), they be­come al­most in­evitable when we see Sean Bean, Carice van Houten and Emun El­liott star­ring in the same pro­duc­tion to­geth­er. Bean, the em­bod­i­ment of hon­or, plays a char­ac­ter not so dif­fer­ent from his Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, that is, a man of strong con­vic­tions and will­ing to fight for what is right. Here, how­ev­er, his Ul­ric is a pi­ous knight who be­lieves that God’s rage must be ap­peased and evil de­stroyed at all costs in His holy name. In oth­er words, a typ­i­cal me­dieval war­rior who uses his god as a weapon to com­mit bar­bar­ic acts that wouldn’t be com­mit­ted oth­er­wise, be­liev­ing them to be for the greater good.

On the oth­er end of the spec­trum is Lan­gi­va (Carice van Houten), a beau­ti­ful woman with a per­son­al­i­ty di­a­met­ri­cal­ly op­posed to that of van Houten’s Melisan­dre in Game of Thrones. She wel­comes the knights into her dis­ease-free vil­lage but is vis­i­bly up­set by their piety, even mock­ing their faith in a re­veal­ing scene — and her twist­ed mo­ti­va­tions couldn’t be more in­trigu­ing once we fig­ure them out. But the true pro­tag­o­nist is def­i­nite­ly Os­mund, whose faith is con­flict­ed (due to his se­cret love for a woman who wants to run away with her) and test­ed as he is con­front­ed with the fear that every­thing in which he be­lieves is a lie. We fol­low the movie through his eyes and dis­cov­er with him that there are things that can be much more ter­ri­fy­ing than demons and necro­mancers.

This brings us to the the­mat­ic core of Black Death — and if you haven’t seen the film yet, I sug­gest you skip this para­graph if you don’t want to see spoil­ers. To put it blunt­ly, this is a very sim­ple movie cen­tered on char­ac­ters who are es­sen­tial­ly ar­che­types. Smith, as I men­tioned be­fore, made many sig­nif­i­cant changes in the orig­i­nal script, most­ly in its sec­ond half, and did so in or­der to of­fer an en­tire­ly ground­ed res­o­lu­tion to the sto­ry by re­mov­ing every sin­gle su­per­nat­ur­al el­e­ment from it. His in­ten­tion was clear­ly to turn it into a moral­i­ty study, which is a pret­ty bold move. The re­sult is a chal­leng­ing piece that rais­es dis­turb­ing ques­tions about a worse kind of evil, one that re­sides with­in our­selves and is dri­ven by the ug­li­ness of re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism.

And be­cause of that, Black Death is an un­fair­ly ne­glect­ed film that should have got­ten a lot more at­ten­tion than it did. It is in­tel­li­gent, thought-pro­vok­ing and does­n’t cater to the ob­vi­ous ex­pec­ta­tions of any au­di­ence — es­pe­cial­ly those who love this kind of ac­tion-hor­ror me­dieval pro­duc­tion for the blood and gore. But if you are open-mind­ed, this should cer­tain­ly be a most re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

July 8, 2016


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