A seemingly unstoppable plague has left a remote village untouched. It’s up to Sean Bean and Friends™ to find out what the heck is going on.
Seemingly nowhere was safe from a plague that ravaged Europe in the mid-1300′s, with the exception of a single lone village. In the film Black Death, Sean Bean leads a group of ragtag holy soldiers to this haven, in search of necromancy and other dark magics that defy God’s will. Eddie Redmayne tags along as a monk, unsure of what has caused the illness, but convinced that this disease is not a punishment by God. The film begins a day prior to their journey getting underway, follows their travels through a forest and swamp, and reaches a fever pitch once they finally arrive at the unnamed village. While the group of soldiers expect to find horror and demonic influence, they are instead greeted by a group of seemingly polite and rational people. As to be expected, not everything is as it appears, and shortly thereafter chaos ensues.
Don’t let my “Sean Bean and Friends™” line throw you off. This is a film full of death, decay, and devoid of any semblance of humor.
The first thing you’ll notice about Black Death is its straightforward presentation of the terror that must have been ripping through England at the time; the visuals are dark and gritty, with rotting and diseased bodies stacked everywhere like cordwood. The camera is given a shaky “observer” perspective, portraying the events in the film with an eerie sense of realism that really gets under your skin. However, perhaps even more unnerving than the countless corpses lining the streets is the group of soldiers the film focuses on. These guys aren’t done Braveheart-style, with flowing manes and an occasional smear of dirt. No, these men are absolutely filthy, their stench seeping from your TV out into your living room. At a glance, you can tell that these men are constantly on the move, with little care for anything that doesn’t involve finding and purging those who offend God. Their appearance provides a perfect visual representation of the grim work they have been assigned, as if they’ve given up their minds, bodies, and very souls to whatever the Church asks of them.
This dirtied appearance is a stark contrast to the inhabitants of the eponymous village they seek, filled with citizens who are well kept, healthy, and above all, happy. The scenes in the village actually brought back a flood of memories for me, as their attitudes and behavior strongly reminded me of Thomas Tryon’s classic novel Harvest Home. Despite their friendly appearances, you just know something screwed up is going on in this village; their body language and complete abandonment of cautionary action defies their kind words and open hospitality. Unfortunately, the village inhabitants aren’t explored with much depth, instead focusing on a select few that actually have an impact on the storyline. I was a little disappointed with this aspect, particularly because the village seemed like it would house a large number of characters worth exploring…but then again, there’s only so much that can be said about a group of people that have thrown off the yolk of religion in favor of a pestilence-free existence. I was under the impression that their personalities sort of ran together, making any extended focus on individuals beyond those central to the plot a waste of screen time.
Speaking of wasting screen time, there’s very little fat here. While I’m sure there are a couple of shots that could have been trimmed off the final cut, the film moves at a brisk pace, conveying the sense of urgency the soldiers must have been feeling. After all, if you’re a holy soldier of God in the 14th century, and you hear of a village that’s untouched by a plague ravaging an entire continent, you’d likely not want to waste any time investigating what’s going on. Despite the fast pace of the film, enough attention is paid to the soldiers themselves that you start to feel like you know them. Not much is said verbally, but based on their interactions and the looks they give each other, you’re able to figure out any potential rivalries or partnerships that must exist within the group. Some of them have clearly known each other longer than others, and while they might not all like each other, they rally behind a single purpose that provides them with a sense of camaraderie that transcends any individual problems they may have with one another.
Aside from the understated (yet painful-looking) gore, dirt, and grime, the film places a surprisingly large focus on the potential religious implications that underline every frame in the film. Here you have a group of men whose sole purpose is to capture, torture, or kill those that do not accept the grace of God, yet some of these very same men have the tables turned on them for having the audacity to support the church. While Christian pietism is a theme in this film, a greater emphasis is placed on pietism in general, whether it be directed towards God or the lack thereof. These matters are presented very matter-of-factly, allowing the viewer to form their own conclusions on the stark (but obvious) differences between the two approaches. This passive exploration of fealty was, for me, the best ingredient in the film.
With a strong script, a nearly perfect cast, understated yet intense visuals, and an off-hands presentation of two starkly different ways of life, Black Death is an excellent movie that will keep you entertained from start to finish. Highly recommended.