Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, David Warner
Directed by Christopher Smith
Distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
England, The Middle Ages: The bubonic plague is busy cutting a pustulating swathe through the population of Britain, leaving villages and countryside alike awash with twisted, bloated corpses. It’s a bleak time for those struggling to eke out a living, and in the middle we find young Christian monk Osmund, engaged in a tryst with his secret love Averill (Kimberley Nixon). Torn between this love and his duty of providing care to the villagers and spreading the word of the gospel at the monastery, Osmund prays to God for a sign; a deific confirmation that he can continue his good work outside the walls, and with the woman he loves.
His sign comes in the form of crusading knight Ulric (Sean Bean), who approaches the monastery with his band of Christian cutthroats – portable Iron Maiden in tow – to seek a guide through the nearby marsh. Within the marsh is a village which the plague has reportedly left untouched. Of course, given that the plague is the physical manifestation of God’s wrath unleashed on Earth that can only mean one thing: a necromancer resides there, and they must be purified.
Osmund leaps at the chance to accompany the crew on their journey in the hope that he may meet his waiting bride-to-be along the way and seek safe haven from the rampaging disease, but as they all set off they begin a journey straight to Hell itself.
Black Death is a horrendously desolate film; the early stages are drained of colour and life. Only when the gang make it to the mysterious village do we begin to see a brighter palette form, something which is masterfully offset by just what transpires there. Visually, director Smith displays a keen eye for framing locations, with some brilliantly atmospheric use of fogging. Special mention must definitely be awarded to the set design and costuming departments, who really score a home run with this one – the feeling of Medieval England is authentically animated.
Anyone watching will likely guess that things aren’t quite what they seem, and Smith shows an expert understanding of storytelling with his ability not to disappoint, but to make the reality much, much worse for everyone involved. Like a cross-breed of Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) and The Wicker Man, it’s methodically paced – but that’s not to say it’s ever boring or monotonous. While a slow burner, every single beat is utilised in developing the characters and building up to the final metaphorical battle for Osmund’s soul. Sean Bean is a powerhouse as the fundamentalist Ulric, unafraid to slit the throats of accused witches with nary a second thought (in fact, it’s a merciful act as they’d burn otherwise), yet utterly convinced that every action he takes is fully righteous. Eddie Redmayne carries the tormented Osmund effortlessly as he is put through the wringer, right up until the devastating finale.
For a rather brutal Medieval flick, Black Death surprisingly isn’t as bloody as you’d expect, featuring only one real battle scene that tends to shy away from the graphic goodies (check out Neil Marshall’s Centurion for the sword ‘n’ shield carnage you’re after), but we do still get a decent amount of the red stuff. Spurting stab wounds, a bitten out and sliced throat, decapitation, disembowelment and a few other choice moments will appease the gore fans, but Smith’s film is much more about the emotional shock than the physical and there it succeeds admirably. This film will pull you in, chew you up and spit you out; while not a straightforward horror film, it is interminably horrific. It’s rather difficult to explain just how effective the story is without giving too much away, but in those final moments before the credits roll Black Death proves itself to be the darkest, most unforgiving, emotionally brutal and savage film of Christopher Smith’s career so far. It’s also the best.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of the flick comes with a suitably impressive visual transfer which may seem slightly underwhelming to begin with, mainly due to the muted nature of the film itself. Once the action moves outside, costume texturing becomes immediately noticeable, and the latter stages at the village give a stunning look at the natural surroundings. It isn’t a reference disc to show off by any means, but it’s pretty spot on. In terms of audio, the ball is dropped a little with the inclusion of only a 2.0 stereo track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. No lossless audio this time, folks! Truth be told, it’s not a massive problem as the surround mix is excellently balanced. The ominous rumbling bass, rustling wind and the evocative score are weighted flawlessly against the crisp dialogue. A little more directional movement would have been welcome in order to open the soundstage further, but it’s a weighty mix that does the film justice.
Rounding up the special features, we get Bringing Black Death to Life – a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with on-set footage and interviews with cast and crew, alongside a few minutes of standalone candid on-set footage. It’s standard stuff, but consistently upbeat. Alongside that we have a selection of cast and crew interviews, which are basically the complete versions of those edited into the aforementioned featurette. They’re all pretty interesting and definitely worth a watch.
A selection of deleted scenes with optional director’s commentary continues to fill up the disc. None of them are particularly mind-blowing or add much to the movie, making it a really wise decision to have Smith explaining the reasons for their exclusion lest it be an underwhelming addition. The trailer and a photo gallery lead us up to the centrepiece: a feature commentary with director Christopher Smith. Always an infectiously enthusiastic and affable guy, Smith is a pleasure to listen to as he tries to cram as much information into the runtime as he possibly can, making this one a must-listen for those interested in the filmmaking process and just what goes on within the mind of the individual in the director’s chair while on set. He also discusses the film’s evolution from the very literal approach in the original script, to the more psychological and metaphorical final product, revealing that in the hands of a lesser artist we could have ended up with something much, much different.
4 1/2 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5