This is a dark, grim film – but then, the Black Plague wasn't a bundle of laughs from what I've heard. If you take a look beneath the surface, it's actually quite a deep film about religion and extremism, and what drives people to them. Keep in mind that it's set in the 1300s, a time when the world was VERY superstitious, and people feared the godless and the unknown. The films draws nice analogies with the present day: the ongoing religious friction between east and west; a fear of global pandemics such as AIDS and the swine flu; the dangers of fanaticism; and yes, fear of the unknown – we still tend to be a pretty superstitious bunch.
The story is a reliable old warhorse – the bubonic plague is spreading around England, and a band of soldiers, led by the ultra-religious Ulric (Bean) is dispatched to find a village that seems to be immune. But they need a guide, so they take on novice monk Osmund (Redmayne), who knows the area and needs to escape in a bid to forget the departure of his true love, Averill (Nixon). The soldiers are certain that the plague is God’s punishment for the barbaric war with France, but Osmund is not convinced. They find the village, run by the mysterious Hob (McInerny) and Langiva (van Houten), and believe that she is a practising necromancer who can raise Osmund’s now-dead love. Is she a witch, and what are Hob’s secrets?
The performances are all first-rate. Bean is the lead, and he acquits himself well, as always, but for me young Redmayne – last seen in Glorious 39, but he's also appeared in The Other Boleyn Girl, Savage Grace and two films about Queen Elizabeth I – is outstanding. As novice monk Osmund, it's his journey – both physical and spiritual – that carries the film's narrative along. Also good are Smith regulars Nyman and McInerny, and the lovely young Nixon. Black Death is not without its faults – the first half hour does drag a bit, and some of the dialogue is a little clunky – but it's a film with something to say and manages to get its message across without being preachy. As someone who has seen and enjoyed all of Smith's previous films (particularly Triangle), this is his most measured, thoughtful and mature work to date.
SECOND OPINION | Mike Martin ½ And lo, it came to pass that in the year of our Lord 2010 a tale was told so dark, so deadly and so lacking in joy that the watching faithful, known as the critics, did laugh and groan as if affected by the clap. For the words that the goodly actor spoke – the script – did reek of the dead raven, and the tale did remind the viewer of another tale, that of the Holy Grail, by those goodly men Monty Python. However be warned, ye faithful, for the intent of the story-teller was not to tickle the ribs but to tell a dark tale of death and plague, and so it came to pass that the story, making the watcher laugh, did not a good evening make.
And that’s quite enough of that nonsense. The really surprising thing here is that what looks like a bad episode of an old TV series masquerading as a serious film was made by Christopher Smith, whose previous efforts in horror have been the lively and effective Severance, Triangle and Creep. Those films had just the right amounts of tension, gore and humour – this is painfully bereft of those qualities, except for a few buckets of unconvincing blood. It cries out for some spark of wit or life, but instead ends up utterly dreary.
It all has the look and feel of Python’s Grail, but apparently takes itself completely seriously. The temptation to cry out “it’s only a flesh wound” after a sword fight was too much for some, and dialogue is laugh-out-loud poor. Smith regulars Nyman and Lynch swear like a couple of gor blimey Cockneys, and McInerny just manages to stop short of proclaiming “hey Nonny Nonny” from his Blackadder days. Similarly, when Warner appears as an ageing monk surely it’s a cue for some joky dialogue – apparently not. Director Smith even manages what was previously thought to be impossible – he makes the wonderful Carice van Houten irritating. In Black Book she’s heroic; here, looking like a cross between the Lady of Shalott and a Timotei shampoo advert, she’s just annoying.It’s not entirely clear why Smith should have suddenly lost his touch so badly, but perhaps the fact the film received funding from Europe and had to be made in a hurry might explain it. It might play well in a cult movie club in Berlin with some ironic music accompanying it, but in old Blighty is just looks like a bad error of judgment all round. Forty lashes for the screenwriter might be harsh, maybe he should be locked in a monk’s cell until he comes up with something better.