Black Death

Anti-Formula Plague


11 March 2011| No Comments on Black Death     by Sean Chavel


Historically credible and an enraptured sense of storytelling push this into evocative realms. Black Death is a rich delving into the 14thcentury bubonic plague and how it ravaged half of Europe’s population either by disease or by annihilation of women suspected of witchcraft. All this is in the hands of pious Christianity run amok, although not all religious men start out evil. Young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) volunteers, in part to chase a woman and abandon the cloth, to guide mercenary knight Ulric (Sean Bean) into a remote pastoral village that is plague-free and yet suspected of occupying witches. The acting is not showy but stern and persuasively composed. The makeup effects are not coy with the flesh-eating. The story does not descend into clichéd action splatter dysgenics. Raw wounds might make you gasp or flinch.

I confess that it got off to a lousy start for me and I thought it was going to be a mind-numbing grind – like low-rent Peter Jackson. The jittery and incoherent beginning, set against not much but stone walls, didn’t do much for stirring my imagination however brief it was. But somehow it gets better and quickly – its’ accomplishment is that it provides a vision of the Black Plague, of witchcraft, of the Church, of anomalous communities torn by fear – all done in a way that soars above generic imagination. Bleak, if you haven’t picked that up or if it needed to be repeated. But you get sucked into its bleakness, its contention of Middle Ages disease and religious-induced bloodshed.

Under grey clouds, the marauding knights ramble through arduous forests and rock caves while a petrified and distrustful monk averts from their more brutish ways. They meet assortments of people along the way, and even fight thieves and raiders to the death. Post-battle, they blame Monk Osmund for attracting them to their whereabouts. They seek not violence, really, if it can be helped. They want to bring Christianity to the pagans and bring infected peoples to their mercy. It’s all very dogmatic.

Instead of familiar genre developments the story leads to expertly contained suspense at the three-quarter mark – a self-supporting village built on peace and order, seemingly regulated by women, all men and women uninfected by any disease or virus. Merriment is a little too suspicious to Ulric who detects sacrilege when there appears to be none. The mother superior is Langiva (Carice van Houten, effectively alluring), a herbal healer who has her own idiosyncratic methods of quarantine. She reluctantly orders her people to offer food, drink and shelter to Ulric and his band of soldiers. The tension will quiet you down to a whisper for the film’s remaining time.

Tricky performances are required to stand in this material and make it believable, which is certainly achieved. Redmayne is stellar as the monk who is much too trusting as well as too distrusting at the wrong times. Bean is much more than just a ferocious and taciturn fighter, he’s an actor that can convey torn feelings of the faith as well as be readily dangerous at the same time. Behind the reigns is director Christopher Smith who seemed to be nothing more than a sick prankster on the basis of his last murder by numbers gorefest “Severance” (2006), but he now has my attention and respect. His epilogue is far removed from commercial formula but aptly sound to pathological fear and hysteria.

97 Minutes. Rated R.


Film Cousins: “The Seventh Seal” (1957, Sweden); “Aguirre the Wrath of God” (1972, Germany); “The Name of the Rose” (1986); “Restoration” (1995).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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