Monday, February 13, 2012

Nevermore Flashback: Black Death (2010)

Nevermore 2012 is just days away, so I've decided to post some old reviews of films that I saw there last year. Stay tuned for reviews and info from this year's fest later on in February!

Christopher Smith's last film, Triangle, took what I thought would be just another typical time-travel/time-loop idea but added a little bit of horror and spun it in such a way that kept it fresh. I was really looking forward to seeing what he'd do in Black Death with a completely different setting. This film takes place in an apocalyptic plague-ridden medieval England where the dead line the streets. The plague is viewed by some as the judgment of God upon the sinful, by others as the work of Satan, and by a heretical few as proof that neither exist. A devout young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is sent to investigate after news of a lone village that remains strangely free from disease reaches the church. He's accompanied Ulrich (played by veteran swordsman Sean Bean), a local bishop's aide whose ruthless morality rivals that of the most vicious inquisitor. Rumors of witchcraft and necromancy in the village run wild, and whether the their pagan practices are the cause of their immunity is the mystery that drives most of the action.

As you might expect from a film set in the dark ages, this is a very dark movie - not just visually, but thematically. Smith does a great job evoking how the ignorance of the age made superstition as real as fact to the characters. While the answers to the mysterious immunity seem obvious at first (the plague simply hasn't reached the pagan town, they have a special genetic trait, etc.), the true picture becomes more uncertain as we're shown an increasing amount of seemingly supernatural events. Since magic is so common in fantasy stories set in medieval or pseudo-medieval worlds, the realism of the film is always in flux, and this makes for a really thought-provoking film.

These metaphysical mindgames are balanced with strong character drama and development. Osmund is a little too naive to like in the beginning, but as he's exposed to more of the world, his struggle with his faith provides some more depth. These struggles reach a climax due to the actions of the manipulative pagan leader Langiva (Carice Van Houten), who tries to persuade him that his church has deceived him all along. Bean has played a version of his grizzled swordman character a lot, and you can tell that he likes it. Here he's particularly ruthless, adding a bloody counterpoint to the Osmund's pacifism.

Smith’s medieval world is a nihilistic place with a mood as black as the plague, and it fits extremely well with the dreary landscapes, dirty city streets, and inevitable conflict. It's a perfect setting for a film that delves into deep metaphysical issues that are punctuated by some truly bloody action.

8/10 = Recommended

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