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Christopher Smith is definitely one of the more interesting directors to watch if you are a fan of genre films. After starting his career off with offerings like of “Severance” and “Creep”, he has expanded his range with the psychological thriller “Triangle”. His latest is “Black Death”, which while not technically a horror movie in the traditional sense, nevertheless packs in enough visceral bloodletting and supernatural imagery to qualify as one.
Set in the early 14th century, when Europe saw the bubonic plague wipe out half of its population in a span of a few short years, the film follows Ulric (Sean Bean), a crusading Knight who has been dispatched to locate and put an end to the activities of a devious necromancer in a remote village. To help him and his band of not-so-merry mercenaries get to their target, Ulric recruits a young monk name Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as their guide. As it turns out, Osmund is anxious to escape the monastery, and plans to meet up with a forbidden love (Kimberley Nixon) who has gone on ahead of him. And while getting to their destination proves difficult and bloody, the real fight awaits them when they finally confront the “witch” (Carice van Houten) and her band of seemingly non-threatening villagers.
The word “gritty” certainly comes to mind when describing the world of Christopher Smith’s “Black Death”. The film is one bleak experience, filled with death and disease. If you were looking for a feel good movie to past the time, it is best to stay very far away from “Black Death”. That aside, the film does get the era correct – or at least, the look and feel of the movie feels “correct”. With bodies littering the streets and disease-ridden rats prowling every corner of the cities, “Black Death” is truly a place you do not want to dwell on for too long. Things do not get any better when Ulric and company head out into the foggy, wet countryside, as thieves, murderers, and accused witches lay in wait for them.
If you needed a broadsword-swinging hero to front your medieval picture, you could do much worse than Sean Bean, one of those guys who just looks supremely convincing in battle armor. As the stout true believer Ulric, Bean gets plenty of opportunities to swing his sword in “Black Death”, as do the rest of the cast. Eddie Redmayne as the innocent monk looks and acts the part, and the young man certainly goes through a believable transformation when the blood starts spilling. Of Ulric’s band, John Lynch makes the most impact as Wolfstan, a man who has seen one battle too many in his long career as a soldier. Andy Nyman as the loudmouth Dalywag has his moments, and he certainly goes out like a champ.
Confronting the righteous crusaders are Tim McInnerny and van Houten as leaders of the strange, plague-free village. McInnerny struggles a bit as the creepy host, but Van Houten is surprisingly effective as the soft-talking and manipulative Langiva. You are never certain if Langiva is the devil in disguise that Ulric and the crusaders believe her to be, or if she is just a knowledgeable woman who just happens to know a lot about herbs and medicine. For those wondering, Smith and writer Dario Poloni do provide answers at the end, but if you’re like me, you may wish they hadn’t.
A film like “Black Death” is not going to have mass appeal, which is unfortunately the same thing you could say about Christopher Smith’s last film, the wonderfully strange “Triangle”. “Black Death” is never actually entertaining in the sense that you find yourself enjoying the action onscreen, even though it’s certainly easy enough to appreciate Smith’s direction and the deeply depressing aesthetics. Horror aficionados will probably seek the film out for its bloody contents and healthy bodycount, but it will probably prove too gritty and nihilistic for most viewers. If nothing else, “Black Death” marks another interest entry by Smith, and I am very curious to see where he wanders off to next.
“Black Death” opens in limited release March 11, 2011, but is currently available via Video on Demand.
Christopher Smith (director) / Dario Poloni (screenplay)
CAST: Sean Bean … Ulric
Eddie Redmayne … Osmund
Carice van Houten … Langiva
David Warner … The Abbot
Kimberley Nixon … Averill
John Lynch … Wolfstan
Andy Nyman … Dalywag
Tim McInnerny … Hob