Barely a month into the new year, there have already been two films set during Europe's 14th-century bubonic plague. The bigger-budgeted of the two, the Nicolas Cage-starring "Season of the Witch
," was atrocious, an ugly, haphazardly written mockery that finally relied on heaps of bad CGI effects and supernatural foolishness. It didn't have a legitimate thought in its head, so, naturally, it premiered on 2800 screens nationwide. By comparison, "Black Death" carries authentic aesthetics, a dread-drenched tone, and provocative food-for-thought ideas involving religious hysteria that prove timely even in the 21st-century. Having seen it twice, it is nowhere near a perfect motion picture, but at least treats its subject matter with the utmost care and seriousness. Release-wise, it is appearing on Video On Demand for the month prior to its measly 3-screen theatrical opening on March 8. If nothing else, these observations about the widely different rollouts for "Season of the Witch
" and "Black Death" only prove how skewed the Hollywood system is, major studios happy to shell out millions on a brain-dead trifle starring a name actor over a more substantive cinematic work that the same target audience would no doubt like much better if given the same widespread chance to see it on movie screens.
In "The Year of Our Lord 1348," a deadly case of pestilence has swept across the English landscape, killing half the population of one infected village and leaving the survivors to believe God's wrath is behind the outbreak. When bishop envoy Ulric (Sean Bean) arrives to town with word that there is a distant village the pandemic has not yet reached, young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) volunteers his services to be Ulric's and his men's guide. This is a big step for Osmund, who earlier chose to stay behind with the monastery when lady love Averill (Kimberley Nixon) fled for safety to Dunwich, but one that he feels compelled to take. Eventually their perilous journey leads the group to their ultimate destination, a secular, seemingly docile community the plague has yet to find. Ulric believes a demon among them is responsible for the death and destruction beyond their borders. The truth, however, is far worse.
"Black Death" has been directed by Christopher Smith, a gifted filmmaker with a sturdy genre resuméhis previous efforts include 2005's suspenseful subway horror pic "Creep," 2007's slasher satire "Severance
," and 2010's psychological mind-bender "Triangle"who has yet to receive his rightful dues. His latest project is, if not his best, certainly his most mature, the horrors within the story deriving from the brutality and ruthlessness of human nature and the danger that comes with extreme belief systems. Ignorant of modern science and medicine, the people in "Black Death" point to God and evil forces as the cause of the plague, leading to unfounded witch hunts and unjust executions. Even the so-called heroes of the piece are in some way guilty, with Ulric and Osmund both led by their faith in a higher power and their inability to consider anything but. When they arrive at the uninfected village, the residents seemingly guided by their belief in a lack of religion, leader Langiva (Carice van Houten) knows exactly how to deceive and exploit the outsiders for their own personal ends. Shadows of 1973's cult masterpiece "The Wicker Man" are rife as the narrative edges to its grim conclusion.
With the exception of Ulric, Osmund, Langiva and Averill, the characters are decipherable from their physical appearance rather than from actual traits and development. The rest of the men on the journey and the other figures from the villages are two-dimensional stick figures, there to serve their purpose as plot pawns than as real, textural people. Sean Bean (2010's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
") will be the most recognizable of the cast members, and he is reliable in the straight-faced part of Ulric, but it is Eddie Redmayne (2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl
"), as Osmund, who carries the film. Redmayne is compelling but physically slight, ideal for the role of a young man still trying to find his way and purpose in a world that is crumbling down around him. In Osmund is the picture's sole visage of hope, and to watch that slowly vanish by the final scenes leaves the viewer all the more rattled and disturbed. As the manipulative Langiva, Carice van Houten (2010's "Repo Men
") is a striking villainess, the kind you love to hate even as the thin line between good and bad blurs for all involved. And, as the fair Averill, Kimberley Nixon makes an impact early on, key to the climax having the impact it does as she seeks to take refuge from the plague and finds herself in the clutches of what could be a genuine necromancer.
Thick in mood, fog and the natural beauty of the German forests and countryside, "Black Death" has been ravishingly photographed by Sebastian Edschmid. Other technical specs are first-rate, from the era-specific costumes to the detailed, no doubt daunting, production design. If director Christopher Smith and writer Dario Poloni do not venture deep enough with their treatment of the individual characters and certain events come off as perfunctory in the first half, they do go a long way toward making up these deficiencies by speaking so provocatively on the unforgiving side of humanity and one of history's bleakest periods as a whole. By the end, the viewer does not know who is wrong and who is right, the rash explosion of religious delirium proving every bit as fatal as the plague itself. As much progress as there's been in the proceeding six hundred-plus years, some things, it turns out, never change.