From 1347 to 1351, the black death, also known as the bubonic plague and the great mortality, swept across Europe. In four years, it killed between 75-200 million people and altered nearly every aspect of medieval life in the process – from literature and art to economics and religion.
The plague is at the heart of the 2010 movie Black Death, a film that is no masterpiece or stand-in for real history, but is also no steaming pile of cinematic garbage. Directed by Christopher Smith and written by Dario Poloni, Black Death plops viewers into pestilence-ridden England in 1348. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk living in a gloomy English monastery. He secretly loves a woman named Averill, giving the middle finger to God and the vow of chastity he took prior to becoming a man of the cloth. The plague is everywhere, and after it intensifies in the community adjacent to the monastery, Osmund implores Averill to flee the area. She complies, vowing to wait for the nebbish “brother” for one week in the forest.
Torn between his devotion to God and his lady love, Osmund is lost following Averill’s departure. His malaise doesn’t last long, however, before a knight named Ulric (Lord of the Rings’ Sean Bean) arrives with ominous tidings and a call to action. He is looking for a man of God to guide him and his men on a quest into the marshes beyond the forest. Seeing this as heaven sanctioning his desire to get back together with Averill, Osmund jumps at the chance to serve. But as you might expect with a film called Black Death starring Sean Bean (who seems to live to die on-screen), this quest becomes much more than a jolly constitutional through the woods. Ulric and his men are actually traveling to a town said to be free from the ravages of plague but in the grips of a necromancer. Their intention? To capture the heretic and bring him or her back to the church to face justice.
Black Death looks like a low budget film. Settings are sparse and under dressed, and the handheld cinematography feels more like a disconcerting necessity than an artistic choice. But even with such limitations, director Smith and cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid create thematically-rich imagery, such as a long shot of Redmayne’s monk bowing before a massive cross, which encapsulates the dominance of religion in this world. There are also moments of interesting blocking, such as when Ulric confers with the head of the monastery across a demarcating line of candles, which suggests the rigid segmentation imbued in medieval society. Once the party leaves the monastery, there are also some striking aesthetics. Shot in Germany, the film is full of forests marked by dark green, brown and black hues, where light seems unable to fully penetrate. This properly conveys the dour circumstances and how helpless the film’s characters are in the face of nature’s wrath.
But it’s not all good – not by a long shot. The film’s cinematography – although effective some areas – is often desaturated and muddy. And while this may be appropriate in regard to tone, it becomes tiresome to look at. Additionally, the film’s big action scene, where Ulric’s group gets attacked by a band of vicious horse thieves, is a mixed bag. There is some nice editing where you get a sense of the frenzy of sword-to-sword combat. But other choices such as the music fall flat on their face. Christopher Smith utilizes a mournful theme consisting of string instruments that gradually escalates in its mournfulness as the melee continues. It adds nothing to the visceral nature of the scene and distracts from the experience of watching Sean Bean going all LOTR on these medieval kleptos.
Another problem that the action scene highlights is the lack of stakes in terms of character investment. Focusing on a rather intimate quest, one might think that the film would feature fleshed out characters. But if that’s what you were thinking that means you’re stupid. Aside from Bean’s Ulric and Redmayne’s Osmund, none of the men involved in the quest move beyond stock characters. Bean’s Ulric, however, is a compelling presence, fueled by both Poloni’s writing and the actor’s skill. His character is a particularly good canvas for exploring the moral ambiguity of the plague era, such as when he kills a woman accused of witchcraft in order to spare her from greater torment at the hands of a mob.
The film is also haphazard in terms of fleshing out the particulars of its milieu and is historically inaccurate . One example of this is when Andy Nyman’s Dalywag discusses a past witch hunt in England that reached massive proportions in terms of mortality. His goofy tale runs completely contradictory to the fact that witch-hunting was NOT widely practiced in England until the early modern period and the publication of texts like the Malleus Maleficarum.
Now, I probably have no business whining about historical veracity. Hell, in my last review I gave a pained seal of approval to The Greatest Fucking Showman, a movie so inaccurate and revisionist it makes historically-based films like Titanic look like newsreel footage and Balto like serious docudrama. Yet even when one attempts to be forgiving, it is difficult to ignore that Black Death is often little more than a “greatest hits” playlist for the black plague: cool moments that aren’t always substantial or specific. It is axiomatic, for instance, that a film like this would include an appearance by the flagellants – you know, the lunatics who beat themselves silly to atonement purposes during the plague years. However, once these freaks inevitably stumble into the frame, it becomes painfully clear that the film doesn’t have the slightest clue on what to do with them.
The film is perhaps more effective when it sheds its attempts at historical realism in favor of the gonzo, which it eventually does as Ulric and his band reach the plague-free town that they are seeking. Upon arriving in the marshy little hamlet, the men discover that the town is being run by an intense and mysterious woman named Langiva (Carice van Houten). Although she initially welcomes the travelers, Langiva slowly becomes more and more threatening as time goes by, until it is revealed that she may in fact be the necromancer herself.
These developments prompt wild discussions on Christianity, paganism and atheism, before the action descends into an orgy of violence, mind-games and coerced denunciations of God. Much of this is histrionic, and much of it recalls better films (such as 1973’s The Wicker Man and 2016’s Silence). Yet at the same time, it imbues the proceedings with a psychological edge that, while not hyper realistic, is somewhat engaging. While it doesn’t feel completely consistent with the more sober tone of earlier scenes, it at least feels like the film is fully committing for a change, rather than doing a bunch of half-measure historical posturing. It also triggers much-needed character development for Osmund, who up until this point has basically been just a starry-eyed innocent/hapless stand-in for the audience.
And strangely, even though the hysteria and carnage that caps off Black Death may not be sourced from any historical text, it does in fact have something to say about the time period. Reading any non-fiction book on the plague will provide you with a greater picture of how medieval society reacted to such a disaster, as well as the long-term implications it had on the world. But such texts also provide you with scenes of pure lunacy – such as horrific Jewish pogroms and the rise of the cultural genre of Danse Macabre – which the third act of Black Death taps into. The unhinged proclamations and apocalyptic fervor it riffs upon (which reaches its apotheosis when Ulric hilariously albeit terrifyingly screams, “I am Death. Vengeance is mine! God’s fury rains down on you!”) does succeed, at least partially, in conveying something that feels truthful about the mindset of those facing the great mortality 700 years ago. That is not nothing, and neither is the film.