If ever there was a title that perfectly captured the essence of a film, this must be it. Black death. This movie is both dark and full of death, in all its varieties. There were a great many unpleasant ways to die during the middle ages, and this movie does its best to explore as many as it can during its 2 hour running time. These include, but are not limited to throat-slitting, slicing, stabbing, dismembering, burning, and hanging. Let’s just say that there is a lot of agonized screaming in this movie.
Despite the title, if I had to pick one color to describe this movie, I think I’d have to go with gray. Yes, folks, this is a gray movie. Apparently seven hundred years ago the sky was always cloudy, and there was smoke or mist or some sort of vision-obscuring vapor-like substance EVERYWHERE. And the morality in this movie is as gray as the palette. It’s hard to root for anyone, since by the end of the movie everybody’s either dead or has turned out to be an evil murdering psycho. Or both.
Basically, Black Death is about a monk (the main character) who guides a group of Christian knights, led by Sean Bean (not the main character, despite what the posters/trailers would have you believe), sent to kill a village full of pagans, led by a witch who has apparently been using dark magic to bring the dead back to life. The pagans aren’t exactly about to just lay back and let Sean Bean kill them all, so they decide to prove that paganism isn’t as evil as it’s made out to be–oh, no, they decide to torture and kill all the Christians. So I guess the moral is that back in the day, everybody just sucked. Which is honestly pretty true.
This movie is surprisingly good for a medieval horror-fest. It’s got a dark, oppressive atmosphere, thanks in large part to its monochromatic color-scheme. While this does get a bit tedious at times, the movie is interesting enough that you’re willing to endure its artsy, washed-out look. There’s also some nice acting on display as well.
Well, a great ending and great acting. Sean Bean acts his part well. His SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER death scene is one of the most powerful parts of the movie.
Wait, was that really a spoiler?
Somehow he seems to have been typecast as the rugged, determined medieval warrior, but hey, there are worse things to be typecast as. Eddie Redmayne, who plays the main character, is very moving in all his scenes. A bunch of the other characters don’t have all that much to do besides, as I mentioned before, scream in agony and mortal terror, but they do that well enough.
The plot is good, but somehow the screenplay feels a little bit sloppy. Too many scenes feel like filler. It’s as though they thought up a greet beginning and ending, and attempted to pad out the middle with whatever they could think of in order to bring the film up to its requisite two-hour running time, whether it be random conversations about the battle of Agincourt or an out-of-nowhere fight scene that was probably put in there so they could use a lot of fighting clips in the trailer to make the movie look really action-packed. We have to watch the knights journeying to the pagan village for about 4o minutes, and while the voyage is interesting enough, it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the movie. Then, once they DO reach the village, we have to sit through 20 minutes of ominous mood-building.
After so much buildup, you start to expect some brilliant, mind-blowing plot twist. Maybe the villagers aren’t actually evil after all, and all the rumors about their black magic were just hearsay? But no; it turns out the villagers really are demon-worshipping pagans that are killing Christians because they believe that doing so will stave off the plague. What follows is a series of torture/execution scenes that are so grisly they actually have you cheering for the band of treacherous Christian cutthroats. All the while, the witch/necromancer woman is making dramatic speeches about church oppression, and how people need miracles to believe in and are so gullible, and how Christians are, deep down, no better than pagans and have brought their suffering upon themselves through religious dogma. While certainly thought-provoking, some of the speeches sound less like something a 13th century peasant woman would say and more like something that was written out at a disk over a cup of coffee after a heated philosophical discussion.
This movie finally does throw a plot twist or two at us. I won’t spoil them, but let’s just say that the end is one of the most powerful and well-done parts of the movie. While a bad ending can break a movie, a great ending can really elevate one, and nowhere is that clearer than with Black Death.
Black Death isn’t quite as profound as it thinks it is (its attempts at social commentary get a little clunky at times), but it is moving in a visceral, powerful way. It captures the emotions of panic and helplessness perfectly, and does a better job than the vast majority of Hollywood films at getting inside the minds of people who lived in the Middle Ages. It was a time of superstition and blind faith, and Black Death doesn’t try to ‘Americanize’ or ‘modernize’ the values of its protagonists to make them more palatable to the audience. What we get is a gritty, gripping, and ultimately entertaining movie.