Black Death‘s biggest draw might be Christopher Smith, director of such horror fare as the well-meaning but woefully forthcoming Triangle, the humorous and gory Severance, and Creep— which I haven’t caught myself. Smith’s latest shows roots in the horror genre, to be sure, but Black Death is the kind of film that wants to play with your expectations and in doing so reveal itself as something more than what it appears to be at first glance. In fact, with Black Death Smith has arguably delivered his most human picture yet, a study on societal and cultural paranoia and distrust wrought by the machinations of religious ideology– which may also make this his most controversial picture to date as well.
I wouldn’t necessarily say, however, that Smith’s agenda here is strictly propelled by a desire to skewer the dogma of the pious and criticize religion by painting a totally unfavorable portrait of faith-based establishments. Set amidst the height of the Bubonic Plague’s reign in the Middle Ages, Black Death very somberly depicts the fervor of both its Christian and Pagan characters; Smith doesn’t lay blame on either side specifically but rather underscores the cruelty of their actions in his plot, involving a company of knights sent out to a remote village in England that the plague hasn’t reached. They’re ostensibly on-mission to determine why this particular hamlet has gone untouched by the ravages of the pandemic; truthfully, they believe already that a necromancer’s influence is at play, and seek to bring him (or her) to God’s justice.
Of course the truth is simultaneously more mysterious, less fantastical, and equally as awful as any of them cares to imagine. But it’s the harmlessness of that truth that makes the atrocities committed by both Ulric (Sean Bean) and his men, and the inhabitants of the village, all the more disturbing. Perhaps Smith is suggesting a godlessness here after all once the film’s final reveals are made, but to say any more would be saying too much; ultimately, he’s making a scathing indictment of human nature more than ideological structures of belief and giving it an underpinning of tragedy.
There’s hope here, too, in the form of novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), who agrees to lead Ulric and the knights to the destination village while hiding ulterior motives– he has a lover, Avrill (Kimberley Nixon), whom he has ushered into the forest for her own protection as the plague begins ravaging his once-safe monastery. Osmund defies what Black Death tells us to expect of men of God; he’s kind and gentle, unwilling to abide the suffering of any person he comes upon. He’s also incredibly inexperienced with the ways of the world and often looks on in horror, helplessly, as the world molders and withers around him at almost every turn. Smith has created a grim vision of the countryside of 1300s England, filtered through dark tones and a muted palette, and it’s easy for us to identify with Osmund from the outset as he and his companions trudge through the ashen, burnt remains of entire towns, as well as the bloated corpses of the plague-ridden.
Without mincing words, Black Death is a fairly gruesome work. One might expect a movie about knights and the Middle Ages to feature a swordplay component; Smith knows the genre and what’s expected of him, and hits several high marks through sporadic and crimson-streaked scenes of battle. Limbs go flying, throats get slit, bodies get impaled, and all in a kinetic, visually appealing fashion. But Black Death isn’t a film that’s meant to satisfy gorehounds, or even those of us with the faintest appreciation for blood-letting in cinema– for all the flair with which the movie’s action scenes are executed, there are but few such sequences throughout its running time. They’re a requirement of any project that has a branch in Black Death‘s family tree, but Smith knows that that doesn’t mean they’re the entire point.
Truthfully, he’s building up to the knights’ arrival at the village and their confrontation with…well, it’s hard to say. Ulric and his men see what they want to see, but only Osmund and the leader of the villagers, the enigmatic Langiva (Carice Van Houten), know the whole truth. Meanwhile the villagers see in Ulric and his men precisely what they want to see and act accordingly. When the two sides clash, Smith announces his intentions and makes his statement– in the face of the inexplicable, people will turn to anything for understanding and comfort. After all, the knights and the villagers are two sides of the same coin, grasping onto a system of belief introduced upon them by differing figures and institutions; where Ulric believes that the plague is God visiting his wrath upon the faithless, the villagers claim the disease as a scourge upon the devout. We, of course, know that they’re both hopelessly, utterly wrong, and that their conflict is steeped in futility.
In the thick of its narrative, Black Death enjoys the luxury of having several emotional cores at its beck and call between Osmund, Ulric, and Langiva. While only Osmund could be called sympathetic– he’s the most moral character of the lot– even the knight and the witch have palatable motives that render them more than mere heavies. It helps that both are played by experienced actors; fan-favorite Bean is almost being typecast at this point in his career (but he’s so good at breathing life into honor-driven and doomed knights that it doesn’t matter one iota), while Van Houten’s presence here is more of a pleasant surprise given the disparity between Langiva and her last big role– 2006’s masterful Black Book. Both Bean and Van Houten seem to be playing a game where Osmund’s soul is at stake, and Redmayne imbues the more idealistic young man with a wonderful heart that’s woefully unprepared for the rigors he’s forced to endure on his quest.
Black Death represents something of a turning point for Smith, who has shown promise in the past despite his inconsistencies. Without a doubt, it’s his most accomplished movie to date and one of the best recent movies of its kind, a grisly and incredibly thought-provoking exploration of the depths people will sink to in the face of the unknown. Nothing’s quite as pleasing as seeing a filmmaker really come into their own and make good on their potential with something unexpected of them and yet uniquely theirs; with some impressive craftsmanship and a band of great performances, Smith has done just that.