I’m going to do that annoyingly pretentious thing that food bloggers do and intersperse a bunch of awesome-looking images of the topic of this post with fluffy, waffling stories about some inane aspect of my life, so here goes. I just got my flu shot yesterday, so I feel like I have some sense about how the protagonists of Black Death, who are in the midst of the massively famous Bubonic Plague epidemic, felt when they were discovering lymph node boils and coughing up blood. One time, my cough was so bad that I think it might have disturbed the yoga class that was taking place in the office adjacent to my desk.
On to the movie, which was much better than I thought it was going to be (even though I knew it was going to take itself seriously). Judging on write-ups around its release date a couple of years back, I’d assumed it to be some semi-poxy little medieval zombie movie set during the Black Death. Nope! What this actually is is a well-acted, grim, grisly, unforgiving depiction of life during the Plague blackout in Middle England, The characters’ approach to seeing how the Plague manifests is in the same vein of how characters acknowledge a bitten comrade in a zombie movie, only here, it’s owing to the steadfast, god-fearing nature of Sean Bean and co. (even more god-fearing than Eddie Redmayne’s monk). The premise is that said monk Osmond volunteers to accompany a group of pretty tough knights to seek out a man who claims to be a necromancer.
What I’d hoped would be a bit more of a character study turns out to be a pretty sturdy, well-paced medieval road movie, which, even on its limited budget, makes Game of Thrones look like fucking My Little Pony. While the men have honour, there’s very little civility in the way in which they conduct themselves – everything is grimly violent, everything is lawless, and it’s every sorry bastard out for himself. This is why we’re compelled to give so much of our sympathy over to the innocent, waifish, doe-eyed Osmond, particularly as his motives are also fuelled by pure love (in and of itself a sin because he had given himself to God). Seeing the barbarism through his eyes helps drive home the point that, back then, blades weren’t razor-sharp, so if you were going to slit someone’s throat or stab them in the heart, it was going to take a few stiff, blunt, squidgy, squelchy grunts of elbow grease before you were even halfway there. Especially with a mace!
I’d grown up with Sean Bean being one of those relatively young actors who already had the presence of one twice his age, so it felt like he didn’t even try to act. Fans of Boromir or Ned Stark will love him in this. Redmayne makes us forget how utterly pretty he can be IRL by giving himself over to his own role (those expressive eyes are kind of a goldmine), although most of the film requires him to look utterly terrified at his surroundings and be on the verge of pissing himself at any given moment. The rest of the cast don’t have more than a handful of moments (or even shots in which they’re in focus), but John Lynch was a standout for me. Even when he’s in the background of a shot or has some borderline cliche/dull lines to say, he excels without putting on any bit of a show.
Technically, it’s a well-made piece of cinema. The score is decent without being too overbearing; the cinematography is so dreamy it made me miss my homeland, even though I’m from England and this was filmed entirely in Germany. There are some odd moments of staggered slow-mo camerawork (the stuff of ’80s horror or sensationalist documentaries about imaginary diseases), that rob some key scenes of their emotional impact. The pacing loses a bit of ground during the final act (perhaps owing to a complete overhaul of the ending), but the film’s utterly cruel final scenes leave you with some lingering questions about what it is to have faith, to subvert another’s faith, or just not to have any faith at all.