What ho, nobles Squires and Squire-ettes!
Despite great potential, Black Death ultimately shoots itself in the foot with a +2 Crossbow Bolt of False Expectations. Instead of delivering on all the scary weirdness hinted at in the first half, the characters end up getting trapped in The Wicker Man. And I ain't talking about the original.
Black Death takes place in that colorful and charming period of time known at the Dark Ages. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk who's just been released from observation after his monastery is tainted by the plague. He reunites with his secret love Averill (Kimberly Nixon) but then sends her away in a effort to keep her safe.
A parcel of grizzled warriors led by the fiercely intense Ulric (Sean Bean) pop into the monastery looking for a guide. Taking this as a sign from God, Osmund agrees to help them. Their destination is a village said to be untouched by the ravages of the plague. En route we learn why: the place is rife with with demons, cannibals and apparently the mayor is some sort of corpse-re-animating necromancer. Pretty cool, huh?
En route, they're forced to contend with a series of pitfalls. One of their numbers is overcome by the illness, they're set upon by bandits and Osmund begins to fear for Averill's life. Eventually they arrive at their destination and discover to their surprise (and our monumental disappointment) that the town is orderly and civilized and it's occupants are welcoming, helpful and gracious.
First off, the good stuff. The weapons and costumes all look pretty genuine, even though Sean Bean's armor occasionally looks a tad Halloween-y. The monastery set is particularly nice. The exteriors, shot in Germany, are gorgeous and borderline fantastical. The film is well-directed and many of the shots, such as the skirmish with the bandits, really pulse with energy.
Often the camera is kept just behind the combatants, which really showcases the sort of unique and terrible bloodletting that maces, axes and swords are capable of. Interspersed with this are some jarringly realistic gore sequences depicting hacked limbs, severed necks and crushed skulls. These sequences really drive home the nasty and brutal nature of medieval melees.
The camerawork continues to impress throughout the film. The hand-held continuous shot of the knights approaching the village really gives the viewer a sensation of being "embedded with the troops", so to speak. Plus, with all the awful things we've heard about the village thus far, sequences like this certainly amp up the tension.
Unfortunately, just as soon as the Christians cross over the threshold the film goes straight down the pooper. The village itself ends up looking like a medieval recreation park, which is to say, not particularly authentic. I know the producers wanted the place to look idyllic but after all the talk about demons, cannibals and rogue necromancers, what we end up getting is pretty pedestrian and, subsequently, a complete letdown.
Carice van Houten does a serviceable job as the "witch" Langiva but she's hardly frightening or intimidating. The only other villager who gets any sort of development at all is Tim McInnerny as Hob. His overly conciliatory behavior is immediately disconcerting, but he never quite transcends from sad-sack oaf to threatening antagonist.
Ulric's men don't fare much better. In one clunky and obligatory scene, Swire (Emun Elliott) gives Osmund (and presumably the audience) a crash course in what to expect from "the gang". We're then informed, flash-card style, that Dalywag (Andy Nyman) is a "torturer", Wolfstan (John Lynch) is Ulric's lieutenant, Griff (Jamie Ballard) is Wolfstan's lieutenant, Mold (Johnny Harris) is NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH, Ivo (Tygo Gernandt) is conveniently mute and Swire himself is the pithy and clever wise-ass. Ergo, I didn't give a shit about any of these people.
Despite the lazy characterization, the performances are all quite good. Since Osmund is the only character to get a story arc and a few interesting twists, Eddie Redmayne deftly takes the character from sheltered and idealistic boy to shell-shocked and battle-hardened crusader. Sean Bean, despite being a totally uninspired casting choice, can still bring the goods as a strident veteran fighter-type. Undoubtedly producers keep picking him because they know he comes pre-loaded with Weapon Focus: Longsword.
John Lynch also scores points as Ulric's even-keeled right hand man Wolfstan, despite bearing a distracting resemblance to Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. Finally, Johnny Harris gets the best line as Mold when he tells a village strumpet: "I'm ugly and I'm Christian and that is not a good combination in here. Piss Off!"
Now, I know people will argue that the film defies expectations for a reason. Admittedly, the script does score points for trying to quantify the evil inherent in dogmatic beliefs and blind faith. Problem is, by the time we cross over the fifty minute mark, there's really no one to root for. After all, Langiva's persecution of Ulric's men is certainly no worse then what the Christians had planned for the "blasphemers".
Sadly, the film is undone by its own foreboding first half. After all the pox-ridden corpses, plague doctors in creepy bird masks and unnerving rumors about a damned village populated by crazed flesh-eaters, we're immediately set up to anticipate an even more tonally extreme second half. Instead, when Ulric and his posse bomb into this pretty and picturesque little village we instantly begin to see them as a bunch of sneaky, cold-blooded zealots.
The first half presages Evil Dead meets Flesh + Blood. Instead we get a second half hobbled by muddied sympathies, moral posturing and dashed potential.
As such, Black Death really ends up being its own worse enemy.