Set in 1348 England, the swords-and-sickness adventure takes place in the days of the *cough cough* bubonic plague that killed millions. The opening narration does a terrific job of filling in and setting up a mood of pallor: “The fumes of the dead are in the air like poison. ... Where did it come from? What carried its germ? ... What commandment did we break to earn this?”
As Ulric (Sean Bean, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) learns, the disease and its devastation is not the work of God, but the devil, which is why he and his band of armored soldiers are tasked by the bishop to “hunt down the demon” that has killed half their kingdom, and go Medieval on its ass. Helping guide them toward a hushed-about, supposedly unaffected village is young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne, TV’s “The Pillars of the Earth”) who’s on the lookout for someone himself: his secret lover.
After enduring an attack in the forest, Ulric and company arrive at their destination, where they are offered shelter, food, drink and betrayal. Osmund, meanwhile, witnesses with his own eyes just what witches are capable of, and the experience shakes his faith to its core.
Mixing history with horror, “Black Death” will appeal to anyone who lives vicariously through the sounds of clanging metal and boots crunching the countryside. In fact, I’d recommend its first hour only to that crowd, because it takes “Death” about that long to find its life. Once it does, however, those final 30 minutes grow fairly intense, like the ending of “The Wicker Man” stretched out to a complete story arc.
After slowly building quite an indie following with the one-two-three punch of “Triangle,” “Severance” and “Creep,” director Christopher Smith has done it again, more often than not, with “Black Death.” With the general public more willing to digest this sort of history/mystery than the subject matter of his previous efforts, it’s possible his audience for this one could be greater than the others combined.
It’s one of those films that looks fantastic, even in its scenes of muddy, ravaged bleakness. I only wish the first portion of its journey were as thick with tension as it is with atmosphere. —Rod Lott