A Plague o' Both Your Houses
The ancient world has been mined and in fact is back in film fashion; so, too, have the Dark Middle Ages, Reformation and later Renaissance, and of course the modern era up to and including today. Not many, however, have broached the in-between twilight of the Hundred Years War era, until now, in Christopher Smith’s Black Death, placed in a Europe that, Italy and Moorish Spain aside, was benighted, brutal, barbarous.
The title term for bubonic plague would actually not be coined until four-and-a-half centuries after the 1348 English setting. In any case, this Los Angeles Screamfest Closing Night film uses that rat-borne terror from Asia that in two years killed half the population of terrorized Europe, as starting point for a love caught in the battle between good and evil. It overlays the concept of means and ends whereby Christian goals may be sought through base acts not all that distinguishable from those of pagan darkness. Prussia location shooting is not intentionally ironic, even though the Dario Poloni screenplay touches issues of unquestioning obedience to man or to God, hysterical intolerance, and trauma as a source of fanaticism.
John Lynch’s Wolfstan is the most balanced of the participants, a relatively humane being in a superstitious inhumane milieu, and it is his voiceover that introduces the tale and at the end reflects ruefully on the hundred-two minutes. He is one of the scruffy warriors led by envoy Ulric (Sean Bean), sent by the bishop to root out unbelievers and heretics whose impiety has brought down this wrath of the Almighty. (Not mentioned is the slaughter of perennial scapegoat Jews.)
In particular, they are charged with seeking out a village unvisited by poverty and pestilential death because protected by an adept in unholy black arts, whom they must capture or destroy. Filled out by Mold, torturer Dalywag and mercenary family man Swire (Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Emun Elliott), they barge into a monastery looking for a guide through the intervening dismal swamp, and novice Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) volunteers, ostensibly because he knows the area.
Merciful according to their own lights, apart from physical strength and an unexpected strong commitment to Church the five are no better or worse than their backward countrymen. It is freckled Osmund who has a hidden motive -- finding Averill (Kimberley Nixon), the profane love of his young manhood whom he urged to flee the pestilence and wait for him in the dark woods.
Continuously sequenced -- i.e., shot chronologically -- over seven weeks, in handheld 16mm for action “war documentary style,” the film emphasizes graininess, mist and the fire-smoky air of the forest primeval at the very beginning of its disappearance. The five-plus-one slog on, interrupting ignorant zealots burning a sorceress and fighting roving rogues who make off with their horses.
Starved and weakened, they stumble into the pestilence-free settlement, which resembles an Amish or Quaker community. Ambiguously welcomed, for one day only, by excessively smiling Hob (Tim McInnerny), and their wounds ministered to by herbalist Langiva (Carice van Houten), they are dined and over-wined and caressed by incongruously seductive local lasses. Her fellows in whites and browns, pale blonde Langiva favors flowing reds and takes an ominous maternal shine to Osmund.
In this village of the damned or of the elect, depending on one’s values, there is something going on beneath the surface and outside the wooden walls, the dead may or may not be dead and buried, grudges are nursed against Mother Church, men’s bodies are to be tried in water cages and their souls in apostate temptations, or else bitter reactions may turn them into the evil they abhor.
Commendable in not going overboard in facile plague SFX, for its first half this “horror . . . historic suspense thriller” is standard somewhat-good grunts soldiering on. Second-part possibilities in the sinister isolated village are wasted, however, as the end is rushed, does not hold water, and is mortally deadened by badly written dialogue badly delivered. For fourteenth-century Europe/Everywhere, knights, death and fanaticism, only fools rush in to domain staked out by The Seventh Seal.
(Released by Magnet Releasing and rated “R” for strong brutal violene and some language.)