The pall of fear and death hangs over thriller-maker Christopher Smith’s “Black Death.” It’s 1348, and we’re in England’s bleak, mist-encircled countryside. The Bubonic Plague stalks the population, killing off entire villages and infecting those who’ve evaded it with constant dread. The Church finds itself losing ground to the Plague as it fails to deliver its followers of their suffering.
For callow monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), the crisis of faith in God is less about the heartless decimation of innocent lives and more about his personal struggle to reconcile his pledge to God with his irresistible love for a woman, Averill (Kimberly Nixon). To keep Averill from the Plague’s clutches, Osmund sends her into the forest while he himself signs on with a band of mercenaries, led by the steely-eyed Ulric (Sean Bean) on a mission for the Church Bishop.
Osmund is tasked with leading Ulric and company to the other side of a mysterious marshland where, as rumor has it, a village untouched by the Plague exists, guarded over by a sorceress, capable of fending off disease and resurrecting the dead. For Ulric, an agent of the Church, the sorceress represents a threat to Christian order and must be eliminated. Hence, once the men arrive at the mystical village, Smith’s film shunts into psychodrama as Ulric and the heretic sorceress, Langvia (Carice Van Houten), circle one another with suspicion and grapple for the hearts and minds of the villagers.
Whether Langvia is truly a sorceress or a charlatan manipulating the gullible villagers with sleight-of-hand is a question weighing on the film’s closing act. It’s a question Osmund faces head-on as he contends with guilt and grief upon realizing that Avrill may have been killed in the forest and Langvia tempts him by offering to bring her back. This issue of what is real, what is illusion and of one’s faith in God amidst so much misery entwine compellingly throughout “Black Death,” and give Dario Poloni’s script its thematic heft.
“Black Death,” rightly so, is not a pretty looking movie; Smith and cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid wash out primary colors, and give their film a coarse, grainy look, befitting the ugliness of their milieu and the brutality of the violence (and, be warned, there’s plenty of it). But “Black Death” is all jitters and quick cuts from the first shot; we hardly get a moment to absorb the mood of pervasive dread and paranoia without being distracted by the jerky, hand-held shooting and restless editing. Smith’s frenetic style is appropriate to the battle scene that takes place midway, but it’s everywhere, creating a sense of anxiety that doesn’t feel organic to the material.
Moreover, when Langvia enters the story, “Black Death” becomes enwrapped in its parlor game regarding her identity, complete with a secretive pagan ritual that feels recycled from every satanic-cult scene ever made, to maintain the sense of terror essential to it plot. The performances are generally sturdy, and while Redmayne’s Osmund is too slight a character to carry the film, Bean compensates with his intense presence. Ulric may be a secondary character here, but Bean owns this movie. His characters’ zealousness, personified by the actor’s grim visage and battle-ready comportment, as well as his commitment to his faith, tested in a painful-to-watch torture sequence, are the driving engines behind Smith’s otherwise sporadically effective film.
Directed by: Christopher Smith
Written by: Dario Poloni
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice Van Houten, Kimberly Nixon, David Warner, John Lynch, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Tim McInnerny