Main cast: Sean Bean (Ulric), Eddie Redmayne (Osmund), John Lynch (Wolfstan), Tim McInnerny (Hob), Kimberley Nixon (Averill), Andy Nyman (Dalywag), Johnny Harris (Mold), Tygo Gernandt (Ivo), Emun Elliott (Swire), and Carice van Houten (Langiva)
Director: Christopher Smith
It’s 1348, and the Black Death is ravaging Europe. Of course, we know now that it’s the bubonic plague that was killing those people, but these people don’t know that and believe that God is punishing them for their sins. In an English countryside, a novice named Osmund from the local monastery and Averill, a young lady in the nearby neighborhood, are in love. Alas, as the death toll mounts daily, it’s clear that they can’t stay here any longer. At least, that’s what Osmund reasonably concludes and he wants Averill to leave and hide in the nearby forest until the plague has passed.
She wants him to come with her, but you know how men of the cloth can be sometimes. He waffles around, waiting for a sign from God to tell him it’s okay to go after Averill, and then, when an entourage of knights led by Ulric show up and ask for a guide to lead them around the marshlands, Osmund finally decides that this is the sign that he has been waiting for.
Alas, making out with Averill is postponed indefinitely when it turns out that Ulric and company are not just investigating rumors of a village in the marshes where the people are supposedly immune to the plague. In fact, Ulric is supposed to hunt down the necromancer that is leading the villagers, and bring her back to the bishop. After all, we can’t have people turning away from God at a time like this, no? Unfortunately for our buddies, the necromancer, Langiva, and her minions mean serious business. Will Osmund ever find his lady love again? Heck, will he and his buddies even survive this movie?
Well, Black Death is an interesting movie, as it turns out that the pestilence isn’t the enemy here – the bad guys are the villains, from all sides. Ulric and his men are confident in their faith to the point of zealotry, with tragic results especially when their zeal is coupled with the arrogance that stems from men who believe that God is behind every thrust of their blade. The heathens are pretty viciously portrayed too. On one hand, Langiva espouses some philosophy that one can certainly get behind, as she decries the chauvinism and patriarchy that often come hand in hand with religious belief. She’d rather be godless than be chained to a religion. But she and her followers match Ulric and his zealots evenly when it comes to brutality and cruelty, so at the end of the day, I can’t help feeling that perhaps it is a good thing that the plague kills everything. Ulric claims that the pestilence is God’s way of cleansing the world of sins – I can’t help feeling that he’s right, although not in the way he’d like to believe.
Even Osmund, who starts out principally as the placeholder for the viewer, isn’t without his failings, and by the end of the movie, it’s hard to remember why I liked him even a bit in the first place. On one hand, yes, he’s supposed to be like that – he’s a man of his time, if I am making sense here, but on the other hand, oh god. Eddie Redmayne puts on a valiant performance as the rather naïve and earnest fellow whose greatest failing at the beginning of the movie is his passivity and indecisiveness, only to become utterly unhinged and corrupted by the events that he soon finds himself in.
Sean Bean puts on his usual solid performance as the charismatic action hero leader, and the rest of the cast complement him and Mr Redmayne nicely. Carice van Houten puts on a pretty memorable performance too as the necromancer who makes sense, frighteningly enough, even as she allows her own hatred to drive her to commit atrocities that are beyond the pale. But then again, is Langiva any worse than Ulric and his band of fanatics?
At the end of the day, the message of this movie is that the medieval era sucks and thank goodness that we are all living in a better world today. Then I only have to read the newspapers to go, “Hey, wait a minute!” If the people behind this movie want to tell me that the world sucks, well, at least I commend them for doing this via this disturbing and yet, entertaining, well=acted movie.