Black Death

If you ever wanted Apocalypse Now, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man rolled into one film then you’re nuts. But now we have it.

It is the year of our Lord 1348 and the Black Death sweeps across the land. Osmund, a novice in a monastery tells his girlfriend to go back to her home village. She pledges to wait for him in a forest. A group of mercenaries arrive at Osmund’s monastery and need a guide to take them through the forest to investigate a village untouched by the plague. Osmund volunteers but finds himself involved in more than just an investigation.

The latest film by Christopher Smith (Severance, Creep, Triangle), Black Death manages to re-create a palpable atmosphere of horror that the plague might bring. Within the first twenty minutes the camera has detailed piled bodies, plague pits, and the dead and dying lying scattered on the streets. Everything is dark and dirty in a medieval way. There are even plague doctors with their distinctive ‘long-nosed’ masks.

The film feels pestilential and medieval.

It also details the break-down of society. Bandits roam the countryside and women burnt as witches. The combat is visceral and nasty. People get their heads caved in and their bodies hacked up by medieval weapons you delighted in drawing during history classes. This is Cadfael with brutal violence.

The characters are all interesting especially Carice van Houten and a typically reliable Sean Bean occupying directly opposite ideologies.

It is solidly made, the story is interesting, it tackles theological questions and the acting is good so it should work but the story is slight. Relationships are never really established between characters to a degree deep enough to make me care. We get snatches – Agincourt, personal tragedy – but not enough.

 As a result the last fifteen minutes which should have been a rollercoaster ride of darkness and emotion felt hollow. This is a shame because it asks pertinent questions about the nature of faith and religion – is the word of God to be followed? Can we trust ideas and abstractions alone? Should we condone savage acts just because somebody claims they are justified by religion?

All pertinent questions for our age.

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