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Black Death
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by Daniel Kelly

"Love in the Time of Bubonic Plague"
4 stars

Christopher Smith’s “Black Death” is a hardened picture, but maybe not in the way you expect. An apocalyptically vicious examination of the damage that can be wrought through religious fanaticism, “Black Death” is a taut and thoroughly uncompromising affair. Constructed with a liking for eerie visuals and haunting imagery the film is a winner, albeit not one likely to rake in much box-office gold.

In 1348 the bubonic plague is tearing through Europe, leaving thousands and thousands dead in its wake. However for young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne,) the sickness isn’t even his greatest concern. Torn between his commitment to God and the love of a local villager (Kimberley Nixon), Osmund is left tormented and confused. When a righteous knight named Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of warriors ride into town they enlist Osmund as a guide, their quest to track down a Necromancer holding power over a marshland community. On arrival they are shocked to find an ordered and pleasant society free from illness, but the almost ghostlike local herbalist (Carice Van Houten) makes both Ulric and Osmund suspect that something sinister is afoot.

Smith isn’t interested in crafting a sword and sorcery adventure with “Black Death”, instead applying his focus to more substantive matters. In a fashion almost akin to something like “The Wicker Man”, Smith probes matters of faith and religion, showcasing the horrors that these ideologies can be responsible for. The screenplay courtesy of Dario Poloni is a mature piece of work, especially when it comes to the tensely executed and intelligently composed finale. “Black Death” avoids taking sides (it depicts Christianity as brutally as it does any sect or cult), instead focusing on the harm and emotional turmoil that rigorous fundamentalism can trigger.

Eddie Redmayne gives a great performance here, convincing as an innocent man of God tempted by human companionship. “Black Death” makes it fairly clear that Osmund genuinely loves his mistress; he isn’t simply drawn to the pleasures of flesh. As a result he makes for a sympathetic leading man, gifting “Black Death” a dose of humanity to slot between its gory violence and spiritual debates. Sean Bean is as always perfectly watchable, although Ulric probably doesn’t rank as one of his more ambitious turns. All the actor has to do is tackle the role with a steely determination and an unrelentingly grim devotion to his cause, both of which he supplies amply. As the potential necromancer Van Houten is both icy yet attractive, adding effectively to the script’s sense of mystery.

The film’s tone is grimy and sullen, “Black Death” rarely stretching to achieve anything resembling a sense of humor. Instead Smith utilizes the occasional burst of bloody violence to keep energy levels high, one such being a bone crunching battle that pits Ulric’s group against a band of vicious forest dwellers. Throw in a torture device and some crucifixion and you’ve got a fairly accurate approximation of the feral and unrelenting attitude toward violence featured in “Black Death”.

The landscapes are beautifully photographed, registering a memorable sense of place and mood. Smith showcases a terrific mastery of his environments in “Black Death”, a sure sign of a competent filmmaker. I’m not sure if “Black Death” is better than his last venture (2009’s Triangle), but it’s certainly of an equal caliber, and given the distinct differences between the two projects it’s refreshing to see Smith attack two different types of genre film with such startling bravado.

I suppose it’s the film’s desire to ask big questions that sets “Black Death” apart, although the solid acting and bloodcurdling combat found within also help. It’s an infinitely more complex picture than most are likely to anticipate, with more to offer than plain mutilation and spooky goings on. The similarities to this year's “Season of the Witch” are there, but “Black Death” is a much more rewarding endeavor. I strongly advise you to seek it out.

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originally posted: 05/10/11 18:40:35
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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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