Every now and again, a film comes along that screams âavoid like the plagueâ. You’d be forgiven for thinking Black Death was one of those films. Directed by Christopher Smith, whose CV includes the flawed Creep (a confused homage to Gary Shermanâs 1972 London Underground-based social horror, Death Line) and starring Sean Bean, by all accounts this tale of Christianity vs. paganism should be as toxic as the titular disease. But against all the odds, this is perhaps the best genre film of the year so far. A good old-fashioned obsessional quest movie in the spirit of Aguirre: Wrath of God (a huge aesthetic influence) and Apocalypse Now, watching Black Death is an unsettling and sometimes terrifying experience.
Set in 1348 at the height of the pandemicâs powers, half of Englandâs population has been wiped out by âGodâs wrathâ. However, one village across the Great Marsh remains untouched by the plagueâs icy grasp. Rather than learn from this community, instead the Church send the Bishopâs Envoy, Ulric (Sean Bean), to hunt down the clanâs ânecromancerâ and make an example of them. But without religious guidance, Ulric will not travel to the Devilâs homeland. Enter Osmund (Eddie Redmayne): a young monk who cautiously guards his illicit affair with Averill (Kimberly Nixon) from the Abbott (David Warner in a brief but welcome cameo). While Ulric and his men embark on Godâs mission, Osmund plans to flee the Church and the group to start a new life with Averill. But with so much madness, murder and malignance at every turn, can he really escape from God’s righteous clutches?
Christopher Smithâs vision of fourteenth century England could not be more frightening. Itâs a land where the dead exist in greater numbers than the living, where wide open spaces conjure not freedom but death and misery. Men grimace and endure, caked in mud and sweat, while beautiful women are butchered as witches to appease a misogynistic God. Bodies line every street, road and field; thereâs an almost tangible odour in the smoke wafting from the burning corpses that pollutes the frame. The sensory overload doesnât stop there. Amid the blood-gurgling, bones-cracking violence, teeth gnash and throats are ripped in some of the most visceral action seen in a while. Meanwhile, the slow-building oppressive score, driven by the low droning hum of chanting monks, inspires a quiet, rising dread, as the group’s descent into death and delirium grows with each passing step.
This journey into the mouth of Hell is best exemplified by the excellent performance of Sean Bean. After a career mostly fulfilling moderate expectations, Bean has recently transcended his supposed limitations to become an actor of some note, as anyone who has seen 1974 (the first part in Film 4âs acclaimed three-part adaptation of David Peaceâs Red Riding Quartet) will acknowledge. Simultaneously ruthless and ravaged, Beanâs Ulric is a force of nature, a terrifying zealot who believes totally in what heâs doing. Calm and measured, Carice van Houten (Inglourious Basterds) provides an alluring pagan proposition as Langiva, who promises magic and redemption beyond Christian understanding. Caught in between these two opposing sides, Eddie Redmayneâs multilayered playing of renegade monk Osmund is inspired. While he might look a little too much like a pretty boy poster child for the BBCâs brand of period drama, Redmayne finds tremendous depth in Osmundâs growing conflict.
Of the supporting players, Johnny Harris (This is England â86) and Andy Nyman (the foul-mouthed producer in Dead Set and a bit of a cult horror legend) bring some much-needed gallows humour to the film as Ulricâs loyal henchmen. Transporting a huge human torture chamber (complete with iron maiden) across the British countryside, Bean’s band of scarred mongrel savages are actually some of the most conventional sights youâll see in Black Death. There are many unusual and unsettling moments that feed into a growing sense of land succumbing to the supernatural: the procession of self-flagellating pagans powering down the river; the girl standing alone amid a smouldering village of the damned; fleeting glimpses of black magic rituals through the fog and trees.
In its treatment of the supernatural, Black Death takes an ambiguous and objective viewpoint and refuses to cast judgement. Is there anything supernatural at work? Can Langiva really bring the dead back to life? Is the pestilence a punishment sent by God? The Wicker Man springs to mind on more than one occasion, exemplified by the sexually-awakened utopia of the pagan community and the Christian warriorsâ paranoia, suspicion and intrigue therein. Like that film and The Witchfinder General, there is no redemption for anyone and no salvation on offer from a non-existent God, only legend exists where the reality does not serve an agenda.
Watch the trailer for Christopher Smith’s Black Death below: