Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
Christopher Smith, the director who brought us Severance, Creep and the absolutely brilliant Triangle, returns with his latest film Black Death – and what a truly amazing movie it is. Set in 14th century England in the midst of the plague, Black Death follows a group of knights and the monk they take on as their guide on a mission from the bishop to investigate a remote village that is miraculously untouched by the disease that ravages the country. Expecting to encounter witchcraft, cannibalism and necromancy upon their arrival, the knights arm themselves to the teeth and set off into the wilderness. What they find is nothing short of shocking.
Black Death is a terrific film. I was already a fan of Smith’s previous works, particularly his second most recent film Triangle, and as a result I was pretty certain that I would enjoy this one, but I had no idea just how rivetting Black Death would be. This is Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness) with the bubonic plague, and it’s an incredible journey to take. For reasons I can’t explain, I really enjoy movies where you get to watch a good character get beaten down until they break. Something about the emotional arc that a character must suffer through in order to finally snap speaks to me – perhaps it is because we all have our own breaking points, and watching the protagonist(s) of a film realize theirs makes them seem more real and human in my eyes. Whatever the case, the grim fates of the characters in Black Death are not for the faint of heart or the emotionally oversensitive. As the title implies, this is dark, gruesome territory. But what a movie it makes!
The cast here is great, in spite of the only big names on the roster being Sean “Boromir” Bean and David “Delta Knights” Warner. Eddie Redmayne, playing Osmund the monk, makes a solid leading man and shows some serious acting talent as Osmund ventures outside his monastery and into the countryside for the first time in many years. Sean Bean and his unit of knights (it has proven difficult to put names to faces, even with the aid of IMDb…the exception being Andy Nymen as the torturer Dalywag) are all quite convincing as war-weary soldiers, stoic and scared at what they might discover upon reaching the village in the marsh. I learned at the screening I attended that this film was shot chronologically, and it really comes through in the performances of the principle cast. The relationships that develop between the characters and their various interactions feel very natural and realistic within the world of the film, and it becomes that much more emotionally alarming when a character dies. The inhabitants of the village aren’t fleshed out much as far as their characters’ personalities, but this is quite deliberate as it makes them seem more foreign and sinister to our heroes. Of special note, however, is Carice van Houten as Langiva, whose cruel nature is always lurking just beneath her calm and beautiful exterior – in short, she makes a fantastic villainess. I should also mention that Tim McInnerny of Black Adder fame makes a good thug as Hob, Langiva’s right hand man.
The production design of the film is very impressive given the relatively low budget that the filmmakers were working with, and the fact that this movie was shot on Super 16 stock amazes me to no end, because it looks gorgeous. The film has this grainy tint to it that sells the movie as a period piece on a visual level. Everything from the sets to the locations to the armor and weaponry has been given a nice coating of grime that conveys the time period perfectly. The world of the movie is dirty and disgusting – the perfect breeding ground for a lethal disease to thrive.
It would be an exercise in futility for me to try and finish this review without giving away the ending of the film, so I won’t attempt it. All I will say is that the film’s final act had me absolutely floored, my mouth literally hanging open in shock. As I said before, this is dark, dark territory, and I walked out of the theatre not only grinning about how much I enjoyed the movie, but astounded by the final turns that the plot takes. I did not see any of it coming, which is a rarity for someone who watches as many movies as I do.
I got a chance to speak briefly to Christopher Smith outside the theatre (this was a special screening at Fantasia Fest in Montreal) and he said that this was his favourite of his films. Watching Black Death, it is easy to see why.
4.5 out of 5