Black Death (2010)
Movie Review by Debbie Winkler
Starring: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, David Warner, John Lynch
Director: Christopher Smith
Release Date: 11 June 2010
Length: 97 minutes
Movie Rating: R
View Format: DVD
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a novice at the monastery who is torn between his dedication to God or his love for Averill (Kimberley Nixon). He believes he has received an answer to his prayers when the bishop’s envoy, Ulrich (Sean Bean) arrives at the monastery looking for a guide to the marshes near Osmund’s home village. Osmund volunteers to lead them, but finds himself questing the wisdom of his decision when he discovers the truth about the envoy’s mission. There is a village in the middle of the swamp who has not suffered from the plague that has swept across England, killing people in every town, village and hamlet. Rumors have reached the bishop’s ears that there is a powerful necromancer who lives in the village. Ulrich’s charge is to capture the necromancer and bring him or her back to the bishop to be tried and executed.
This is a dark, gore-filled movie about the power of faith or belief. The setting is medieval England when the plague or black death was sweeping across the land. The victims are so large in number that there are not enough people left to bury them or to keep the streets free of their bodies. You can almost smell the stench in the air as the camera pans through the muddy, filthy streets of the small village where Oswald’s monastery is located. The buildings are squatty, poorly constructed and seem to be scant protection from the weather. Cloth quality is poor and comes in muted earth-tones. Everyone is dirty, stinky, hungry and terrified. Rats roam the streets, buildings and bodies at will, unknowingly spreading the disease to more victims. Everyone believes that this sickness is a punishment from God, but how do they atone for this great sin? How could God allow them to suffer so? It is easy to see how any illness could wipe out 1,000s of people when you watch a movie like this one. They made no effort to pretty-up the time period or to feed into the dreams and imaginations of those who believe it would have been wonderful to live back in the past during this time of gallant knights, beautiful princesses and chivalry. This is life from an average citizen’s point of view. Ulrich (Sean Bean), as the bishop’s envoy wears clothing that features better quality cloth, a bit of color and finely made weapons. The rest of his party are dressed in a motley assortment of clothing, much mended, and are armed with whatever weapons they can afford. Only Ulrich possesses horses, one to ride and one to carry his weapons and supplies. These people live so far below the poverty line that you should note how fortunate we are to live in the day and age that we do. I loved the time and effort spent on the setting, even though there is a great deal that is not historically accurate. It made a wonderful, gothic kind of horror film and, even though there are no monsters or surprises in this movie, the natural setting of the Middle Ages makes this a scary movie no matter who is watching!
This is not my normal type of movie as I do not typically enjoy watching horror movies with a lot of torture or with religious overtones, but I love Sean Bean and could not resist watching this one when I had the opportunity. Sean Bean is a fine actor and he makes the most of his fairly limited character. He is strangely washed out in this film and his skin almost has a greyish tone to it. Yet the light of fervent belief burns in his eyes and he is very impassioned in his speeches. It would have been easy for Sean Bean to play Ulrich as a devoted religious fanatic who sees nothing else, but he pushes the character a bit. Ulrich does not shirk from his responsibilities to kill witches, force unbelievers back to the church and to keep the church in power, but he is not a cruel man. Ulrich does not inflict pain for pain’s sake and does not enjoy torturing people. He kills quickly and cleanly and then moves on. He does not have a sense of mercy, but he is not a torturer who delights in the screams of his victims. This makes Ulrich a much more likeable, approachable character, but he is not someone you would feel comfortable being around! It was delightful to see Eddie Redmayne again in the role of Osmund. Hopefully he will not get type casted as a medieval actor, but he does excel in these roles. He has a look and a feel for the era that is very organic and completely believable. He isn’t too hard on the eyes, either! I just saw him in The Pillars of the Earth and was happy to see that he is in other films, too. Eddie Redmayne was the heart and soul of this film as the monk, Osmund. He is a real, flesh-and-blood character as he still loves a woman, even though he is training to be a monk. Osmund has a soft heart, hates to see people suffering, and is struggling to commit completely to the church or to the woman he loves. This struggle makes his character a bit more complex, and naive, then the rest of the men he accompanies. Everyone seems to like him and to try and help him make the right decisions, but, in the end, Osmund must decide for himself. Unfortunately, the director tacked on a segment at the end that destroyed the character and feel of the film, which revolves around Osmund’s character. I think that the director should have cut off the last 5 minutes or so and ended when Osmund returned to the monastery, but that is just my opinion. The rest of the characters are more peripheral, but there are a few stand outs that I would like to mention. Langiva (Carice van Houten) is the necromancer in the village in the swamp. She is a beautiful, witchy sort of woman who effortlessly holds her people in thrall. You do not really discover who – and what – Langiva is until the end of the movie, but it is fun to discover the truth behind her character while you watch. My favorite character, however, was Wolfstan (John Lynch). He is a balance between good and evil, practicality and impulse. He befriends Osmund, helps his fellow guards who are suffering, and is the heart of Ulrich’s team.
This movie contains a lot of information about religion, but I would not say that it is for or against religion. There is no doubt that the church wielded a great deal of power during the Middle Ages. They also controlled a great deal of wealth and instructed people as to what they should believe. Considering that this time frame is also called the Dark Ages, it is really no surprise that the church kept power for so long as they were the only ones who had access to information and learning. All of the characters in this movie believe that they hold the truth. Each character has a force of faith or belief inside them in this film. Some have such a strong hold that they will do anything rather than recant. Others are willing to side with whichever group appears stronger to ensure their survival. This movie will have you questioning how strongly would you hold onto your beliefs in the face of torture, certain death or mindless suffering. Some characters will surprise you with the depth of their beliefs, others will disappoint you with their superficiality, but it is always interesting to see what is going to happen.
This is more of a historical drama than a horror film. There are scenes of torture and death that are gruesome and vivid, but no real paranormal elements. Many women are believed to be witches, possessors of power over life and death. Women who healed with herbs instead of prayer, whose animals lived when others’ died, who were more beautiful than the norm, were always suspected of being witches. If I lived back in this time, I would pray to be average looking, average in intelligence and obedient to be able to survive. It was a terrible time to be a woman, especially one who was strong-willed or talented. The thoughts and ideals portrayed in the movie were almost more disturbing than the few, brief scenes of torture shown. I say almost, but not quite, as I had to turn away a few times. Still, this movie was not at all what I was expecting from a horror film standpoint. The most terrifying aspect of the film is the fear of the plague itself. People check on anyone who coughs, vomits, or has nodes on the skin. Everyone knows the signs and try hard to hide any symptoms to stay alive a few more days. It is a terrible, painful way to die and there was nothing anyone could do to help you if you contracted the deadly disease.
In this end, this movie was more interesting than I anticipated and much better made than most horror films. This is a good movie to watch around Halloween or on a dark, scary night when you are looking for a B-grade horror movie to watch late at night with some friends. It isn’t really a good movie, but it isn’t really a bad movie and I did love the two main characters here so I am going to say that it was a solid film. Give it a chance, you might like it!
This movie contains some graphic scenes of torture including being pulled apart by horses, being crucified and disemboweled, having toes cut off, hot brands applied to your skin and many shots of what the equipment looked like. There are scenes of death including men stabbed with swords or daggers, chopped with axes, shot with arrows and more. There are scenes of drinking, verbal taunting, and mild language. Recommended for ages 18 and up.