As dour an experience as the title suggests, “Black Death” thankfully isn’t a failure, but it does seem to run decidedly off course. Christopher Smith’s earlier work like “Creep” and “Severance” suffered similar problems of taking a commendable premise and letting it down with tin-eared dialogue, and barbarism past the point of self-indulgence. Those films however had a wicked sense of humor to compensate for their shortcomings, no such luck here.
A pity as otherwise most of the groundwork here is commendable. ‘Death’ avoids the visual effects trickery and silliness of the similar “Season of the Witch” in favor of more high-minded explorations of power and religious zealotry in a very superstitious and almost anarchic society at the end of the High Middle Ages. A tedious road trip movie early on turns into a more interesting battle of wills in the second half between a logical but manipulative and ruthless pagan cult leader (Carice van Houten), and a group of lethal mercenaries who justify their brutality with their Christianity.
No-one here is a particularly sympathetic or rich character, even the naive young monk who tags along and serves as the audience’s entry point is something of a cipher. That’s the aim it would seem and makes the horror of the situation much more human and believable. Smith however does take things too far at times, not graphically but rather overplaying scenes which would’ve benefitted far more from a subtler hand. This is most visible in the bleak last few minutes of the film which are memorable but also threaten to derail much of what came before.
The cast stoically hold it all together with the ever reliable Sean Bean playing the righteous, never doubting leader of this not so merry band of knights. Eddie Redmayne as the monk doesn’t click as he never quite pulls off the innocence routine in his early scenes, and overplays his character’s loss of it in the latter ones. Tim McInnerney as the commune’s ever smiling administrator is a delightful small role, though the real scene stealer is Houten who makes for a bewitching and quite commanding presence playing the potential necromancer.
Yet the interesting final act can’t quite compensate for the sheer dead weight of the earlier scenes. Strong production design is let down by the almost monochrome palette of uninspiring and mostly handheld cinematography that gives the whole endeavour a TV movie feel. It’s a commendable attempt at historical accuracy, one that avoids over glamorising what was one of the most awful times in history to be alive. Yet it also doesn’t make it an easy slog for those of use who aren’t medieval European history buffs. ‘Death’ has enough going for it though to recommend one viewing anyway.