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3 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Black Death
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by Jay Seaver

"Historical horrors."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Director Christopher Smith is clever in presenting "Black Death" to us. We all know that the bubonic plague was spread by ticks nesting on rats, and the opening scenes will often have the vermin skittering across the screen. He doesn't use them to show his characters up, though, so their tendencies to offer supernatural explanations can't quite be discredited, which adds a bit of uncertainty to an already lean and mean film.

After all, in 1357, everybody wondered what had sent the pestilence, the main argument being as to whether it was the work of God or the Devil. Whatever the cause, even the monasteries are no longer safe, leading novice Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) to send Averill (Kimberley Nixon), the girl he loves, back to the woods near their home to be safe. He'll soon follow, as a guide for Ulric (Sean Bean). The Bishop has heard that a village near there is plague-free, perhaps as a result of necromancy and dark magic, and has dispatched Ulric and his team to investigate. They battle through plague and bandits to get there, and find that it is plague-free - and that town leaders Hob (Tim McInnerny) and Langiva (Carice van Houten) have little use for the Church.

Black Death doesn't quite have an A-list cast, but it's one where just about everybody involved is perfect for the task at hand. If you need a guy to look imposing while swinging a big sword, every movement a testament to his righteousness, you really want Sean Bean. He looks much more natural in a beard and chain mail than he has in his recent, more contemporary roles, and that's what you want from Ulric: This is a man who feels he has been called to his violent work by God, and should walk through a room, forest, or swamp like he owns the place. His band is comprised of similarly dangerous men (including an excellent Andy Nyman as more or less the exact opposite of the nebbish he played in Smith's Severance), and they've got to be ferocious in their own right but also not quite up to his fierce standard. Of course, there's room for an older, more philosophical second-in-command, and John Lynch fills that part very nicely.

On the other side, there's Carice van Houten's Langiva, whose power comes more through intellect than faith and physicality, but is no less imposing for that. She's the opposite of Ulric not just in physicality (light and slender, opposed to bulking and swarthy), but in personality: There's more to her than can be deduced from her first appearance, and as the audience and Osmund learn more about her, van Houten does a fine job of playing up the newly revealed facet while still maintaining a connection to our first impression of her. She winds up doing with nuance and variation what Bean does with consistency and brute force.

No matter what sort of occult powers Langiva wields, Dario Poloni's screenplay ultimately establishes the story as being a battle for Osmund's soul and loyalty, with the two sides weighted more equally than one might have expected at various points. Eddie Redmayne is just right for that; he manages to sell Osmund's innocence, not just in expecting the world to be a better and kinder place than it is, but in thinking he can get away with things. Redmayne and company do an excellent job of making Osmund both a young man of his time and someone that a twenty-first century audience can connect with, as well as making the efforts of Ulric and Langiva to get and/or keep him in their respective camps believable.

Given that Christopher Smith's previous three features were horror films of different sorts, it would be no surprise to see this one go in that direction. At the very least, he isn't shy about dishing out the blood. Ulric's team are hard men, and the dangers they face in the forest and swamp (and potentially the village) give Smith plenty of chances to dish out some serious action. Not quite so much as he might have in previous films, though - this one is much more about tightening the screws to get the audience worried about what might happen - but he manages to make both the tension and the action engrossing. He handles the multiple changes in direction in the last act very well, too, although the epilogue does feel a little bloated at first.

Not that I was in any hurry to get out, and by the time it's over, Smith, Poloni, and company have delivered a smart, thrilling, movie that's a very nice mix of horror, mystery, religious commentary, and drama. There's an interesting cluster of harsh, medieval-and-earlier action flicks coming out of the UK right now from quality directors (see also "Valhalla Rising" and "Centurion"), and "Black Death" is a worthy entry that will hopefully get Smith a little more attention outside of horror circles.

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originally posted: 08/05/10 10:29:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/01/11 Chris F a lot better than i expected 4 stars
6/17/11 Troy The first half was paced too slow; but the rest made up for it. 4 stars
3/21/11 Guido Sanchez It has a lot of strength, but it's not something I feel like I will ever need to go back to 4 stars
3/15/11 Jack Great review Brian! Scared the heck out of me too. Also made me think!!! 5 stars
3/14/11 james Great movie 4 stars
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  DVD: 10-May-2011

  11-Jun-2010 (15)

  11-Mar-2011 (MA)

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