Theatrical review: Black Death

Nothing can stand against Sean Bean.

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Certificate: 15
Director: Christopher Smith
Screenwriters: Dario Poloni
Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten
Distributor: Revolver
Running Time: 97 mins

With Solomon Kane, Valhalla Rising and Centurion, the movies have set up camp in the Dark Ages of late. The latest, Black Death, continues this trend with the genre director Chris Smith (Triangle, Creep) staying true to his grisly track record.
A medieval tale full of mayhem and menace, it’s the 14th Century and the plague has brought a flesh-eating, bulbous stench of death to these fare isles, the population cowed by a pestilence seen as the embodiment of God’s wrath wrought by mankind’s sins. Knight Ulric (Bean) – along with his band of bloodthirsty mercenaries and faith-filled monk Osmund (Redmayne) – embarks on a quest to find a remote village that has remained uninfected, his mission to capture the ‘necromancer’, renouncing His name and bringing the deceased back to life.

Medieval England was indeed an unpleasant place and Smith captures its barbarism perfectly, dropping the viewer in a hellish quagmire of superstition and savagery. You need look no further than Ulric’s travelling ‘torture wagon’, for a sign that subtlety was not high on the list of priorities, and the combat scenes are portrayed with a frightening realism, as opposed to any overly-staged choreography. Dario Poloni’s script provides well drawn characters, too, and solid performances from the cast – Redmayne especially as the conflicted man of the cloth – bring them to life while ensuring that they remain faithful to the era.

A supernatural thriller with horrific overtones – one sequence in particular brings to particularly vivid life the visceral brand of ‘justice’ served up at the time – Black Death is not just your usual swords and sorcery yarn, though. Witches are burned and rogue savages pillage the land and its inhabitants, but under the chain mail, as mankind questions his deserving of the vicious plague, Smith offers up a thoughtful meditation on God, the true nature of the Devil, and the motivations for the acts perpetrated in their names. True, he asks more questions than he perhaps has answers for, and pilfers a little too readily from a certain Brit-horror classic, particularly in the climactic denouement, but Black Death delivers the requisite carnage without being devoid of substance either.

Devoid of ham and filled with savagery aplenty, Chris Smith’s medieval mission is a cut above the usual period output.