Reviewed by: Dave Murray
Carice van Houten
What's it about
As the plague ravages England in 1348, a group of the Bishop's demon hunting knights follows a young monk to investigate the rumours of a village untouched by the black death, and the Necromancer that may be at the heart of it.
Is it good movie?
I went into Black Death with high hopes. I loved Smith's previous movies; Creep was an excellent tension filled romp, and Severance tickled my gore bone into submission. Plus, other than movies about Roman Britain, movies about Dark Ages Britain never fail to entertain me, even if they are terrible. While I did have a few small issues with this flick, overall it was a damned good watch, if somewhat depressing. Smith's visual style is spot on here, with gloomy, Gothic visuals, a great cast of unlikeable characters, some serious religious overtones, all backed up by an understated but powerful score by Christian Henson. Dario Poloni's script is clean but nasty, the dialogue well done, and the story very well done.
It's the little historical touches that made that film for me though. The appearances of plague buboes on people's bodies was chillingly gruesome, as was the depiction of everyday life during the time of the Black Death. The efforts of the Christian churches to place the plague at the feet of the devil or witchcraft has been well documented, as are the roving bands of church knights who were essentially ruthless witch hunters. I especially liked the use of a Rondel dagger the knights use to kill one of their own who is infected. Shoved through the armpit into the heart, it was believed at the time to be painless (yeah, right). Then there is the dynamic between the pagan villagers and the Christian Knights. While this drives the whole narrative of the movie, with the young monk and even the great witch hunter Ulric questioning their faith when shown the power that the matriarch of the village possesses, it bothered me that the knights, while being savage, bigoted and bloodthirsty, were more often shown as the "noble" or "good" characters, while the villagers were almost universally creepy, crazy or evil. Personally I found the actions of the knights against suspected witches and pagans horrific, but then again in that time everybody took that stance when it came to pagans and witchcraft.
As for the cast, Sean Bean was doing what he always does excellently (brooding on a horse with a sword and being a badass), while Eddie Redmayne went from timid monk to his final insanity fueled crusade with talent and emotion. Also the various undesirables that made up the band of knights were a memorable bunch. The villagers were all suitably creepy and imposing, but it was the necromancer played by Carice van Houten who stood out here. She was half sweetness and half utter revoltingly crazy (which I guess comes with the territory of raising the dead, huh?). It was a standout performance, and I would have liked to see a more concrete resolution to her story.
And that would be my biggest gripe about the movie, is that the final sequences are told in the form of legends of what happened after, and we're never quite sure what because of the witch and her followers. All we get are different versions of what the monk may or may not have done in revenge for what happened to his soldierly companions. I guess it was this lack of a satisfying narrative conclusion that brought the movie down for me a bit, but truth be told, I had fun with it from the beginning, so it's all good!
Video / Audio
Video: Widescreen (2.40:1).
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital, with subtitles in Spanish.
There are some Deleted Scenes, that didn;t really add much more to the movie, except maybe a little more character development and atmosphere.
There is a short featurette, Bringing Black Death to Life, which is mostly a Smith/Bean love fest.
The Cast and Crew Interviews are much the same thing, but interesting. I especially love the interviews throughout with the guys who played the knights.
There is a little more Behind the Scenes footage, which is a look at the actual shooting of the movie.
The feature HDNet: A look at Black Death is your standard promo piece for TV or DVD, and it just rehashes the info from the other features.
And finally, there is the Trailer, and a Digital Copy of the movie that is downloadable through iTunes.
It's a moody, violent and well told tale of religious fanaticism at one of the most death filled times in human history, and it is a great movie. I would have liked it more if the ending were a little less speculative and more conclusive, but on the whole, the excellent acting, chilling score, great writing, haunting cinematography and tight direction made Black Death stand out as another awesome portrayal of Dark Ages/Medieval Britain. And I'd even watch it again, which I can't say for every movie I've liked. I think Sean Bean has that effect on me.