Black Death

Posted: May 10, 2011 by crowbait in Film, Reviews

As mentioned earlier this morning, “Black Death” is available on DVD today. The antidote to “Season of the Witch,” Sean Bean heads a band of ex-soldiers in the service of the church, hunting and eliminating the servants of the devil.

Plague-ridden medieval England: Bodies lie scattered in their hundreds, the country is in turmoil. One hope remains, rumours of a village that is unaffected by the deadly disease. As God’s ambassador, young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is tasked  in leading the fearsome knight Ulrich (Sean Bean) and his group of mercenaries to the remote village. Their quest is to hunt down a necromancer – someone able to bring the dead back to life.

Their journey is treacherous and filled with danger; encountering deadly bandits and vicious witch-burnings that will put their faith to the ultimate test. Though it’s upon entering the village that their true horror begins…

From Christopher Smith, director of cult hits Creep, Severance and Triangle, comes a brutal and terrifying epic that guarantees to chill the blood and stir the soul.

The Good:

No one is “right.” It is a story about faith and violence.

Sure, it shares some themes with the previously mentioned failure, “Season of the Witch,” and classic “The Wicker Man,” but “Black Death” bears a gritty realism in both the setting and performances.  More like a slice of life movie – a very violent, scary slice of life.  The realism makes for a better film.

The characters possess believable motivations for their involvement in their little crusade and provide an interesting mix of true believers living out their faithful convictions, soldiers pursuing the mission like they would any order given in war and opportunists looking to profit or pursue their own parallel desires. In an enjoyable twist, the young monk Osmund is the first to show his opportunistic rationalizations for the quest. None of these characters are simple and interactions are not wasted. Each is given a brief moment of introduction and then as the story unfolds every line and action fills out the character outline. In an early sequence, the travelling band encounters a mob of villagers preparing to burn a woman accused of witchcraft. Ulrich takes the opportunity to show his devotion to the church and his family, victims of the plague he believes was caused by necromancy, but does not react predictably. He is humanized through his actions and his belief in the inevitability of violence. Sometimes, death is a mercy he can offer the accused.

The depictions of violence are well handled. In the heat of battle, fighting off the expected forest encounter with marauding brigands, swordplay is brutal and the capacity for medieval weapons to maim and slaughter is frightening and clear. Unusual for a movie about violence, though, much of the brutality is implied instead of shown. It’s a real world of savagery and torture, not a slasher. Gore is not the focus. However, when it is on camera, it’s all practical. Points for that.

As a side note, it’s nice to really be able to see a director mature through his films.  “Black Death” is Christopher Smith’s best film to date, dealing with more complex themes, stronger atmosphere and more depth in the characters.  We look forward to his next movie and hope he continues to evolve as a director.

The Bad:

This is a film that has been badly misrepresented in its own press. Despite what trailers or interviews would indicate, it’s not a violent film. Instead, it is about violence. A viewer expecting a series of gruesome torture sequences of various witches will be disappointed. In fact, images and even film clips used in magazine and online promotions have been cut. Perhaps an unrated release will restore this material, but we hope not, fearing the film may lose its focus.

Some other critics have reported that the film’s ending will be divisive in a “love it or hate it way.” From our viewing, however, it worked. The conclusion, while upsetting, was the result of a natural progression.

Our righteous band of witchhunters.

Does It Pass the Bechdel?

No. The female characters of the film never interact in any meaningful way.

Would we recommend?

Yes, provided you can avoid baggage from the advertisements, you can find a lot to enjoy. There are good performances all around and some beautiful settings that take away the oppressive weight of other, lesser films.

A note from Jenny Dreadful: The violence is not graphic and excessive, but viewers who are particularly sensitive to torture in film may prefer to avoid it anyway. Although many moments are not seen, enough horrors are heard and implied to haunt some. But, yes, absolutely. Despite my disclaimer, highly recommended.

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