Black Death


Winter is here.

Winter is here.

(2010) Medieval Horror (Magnet) Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Jamie Ballard, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, David Warner, Kimberley Nixon, Tobias Kasimirowicz, Keith Dunphy, Tim McInnerny, Marianne Graffam. Directed by Chris Smith

Back in the Dark Ages, the bubonic plague must have seemed like the end of the world. A pandemic that seemed to spare nobody, there was only rudimentary medical science and literally no protection against its ravages. Entire villages and even districts were wiped out by it.

So when a village seemed to be emerging unscathed from the horrors of the plague, the Church was suspicious. Witchcraft must be involved. Ulrich (Bean), a no-nonsense knight if ever there was one, is dispatched to the town to discover the truth and if necessary, put a stop to it. He enlists Osmund (Redmayne), a monk who knows the area well.

Osmund is pious but no saint. His girlfriend (Nixon) has been sent ahead into the forest to escape the plague. Osmund had plans to meet her there before being drafted. He joins (albeit reluctantly) Ulrich’s troop which includes a gleeful torturer (Nyman), a grim warrior (Lynch) and a mute killer (Gernandt). The group has issues, including being forced to strike down one of their own (Ballard) who is stricken by the plague, as well as having to take on bandits.

Eventually they reach the village which is seemingly controlled by two individuals – Hob (McInnerny) and Langiva (van Houten). During dinner, the me are drugged and put into a water-filled cage in the swamp while Osmund is given a horrible decision regarding his girlfriend whom he’d feared was dead. And the fears of the Church may not be entirely unfounded when it seems that there is a necromancer in the village who is powerful enough to raise the dead…

Smith is best known in this country for Severance but has actually directed several nifty little horror films in Britain. He is known for some fairly gritty films, but this might be the grittiest. This is not a Sword in the Stone England where everything is clean and healthy but what it really was like; foul, filthy and full of pestilence.

Good thing he’s got Sean Bean. Bean, who has of late made his medieval mark on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO is just as great here. He is strong, a great fighter, an inspiring leader but not without faults. His belief in the Church is staunch and unwavering but his unquestioning faith leads him to do acts that are most certainly unholy.

Redmayne is perfectly suited for the role of the pious Osmund. Osmund is terribly conflicted; on the one hand there are the vows to the church but on the other his forbidden love. Redmayne captures this division nicely and Osmund’s terrible dilemma is made very relatable. Van Houten, one of the best actresses in the Netherlands (if you haven’t seen Black Book by all means go out and rent it) plays the femme fatale to the hilt, and gives Langiva a very sensuous edge. The veteran character actor McInnerny also has a deliciously bad side to him.

The two sides – the Church and the pagans – don’t distinguish themselves here which makes it tough to have a rooting interest (it’s Osmund by default). That makes for a pretty grim fairy tale and that can get taken to extremes. The battle scenes are pretty violent and there’s nothing clean about them. There are no Errol Flynn acrobatics, no Lord of the Rings legerdemain, just a bunch of guys hacking away at each other with pointy things which was pretty much what medieval warfare was all about.

You may wonder what point there is to the movie with the ending which is, like the rest of the movie, pretty much a downer. I’m not sure you really need to look for one. This is a pretty strong movie that has overtones of horror, action and fantasy. However, don’t look here if you’re looking for the feel-good movie of the year. Then again, if you’re looking in the feel-good movie of the year it’s unlikely you’d be in the horror section anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: Spot-on re-creation of medieval England. Strong performances by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overly brutal in the violence. Ending seems a bit pointless. Might be a bit too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense in places. There are also a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rupert Friend was originally cast as Osmund but was eventually replaced by Redmayne.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some behind-the-scenes footage (separate from the standard making-of featurette) and some interviews with the filmmakers.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $265,318 on an unreported production budget; I think it unlikely that the film was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centurion

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meek’s Cutoff

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