Marks out of 10 - A living death

21st May 2010 at 01:00

Black Death

In cinemas from May 28

By Meabh Ritchie

Ever wondered what a swollen groin looks like? Off the football pitch, it's not an ailment you come across much these days. But now you can see it in all its gruesome glory, thanks to Chris Smith's film exploring both the myths and the brutal reality of the Black Death.

In addition to corpses, shudder-inducing skin conditions and half-dead extras, Smith gleefully seizes on any opportunity to depict violence in Braveheart-esque battle scenes.

But if you are looking for more than gore and an inventive demonstration of novel ways to dispatch characters, you may be disappointed.

The film follows the journey of novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who has managed to escape the clutches of the bubonic plague as it sweeps across 14th-century England.

Osmund is torn between his loyalty to his religious order and his love for his secret girlfriend Averill, who is fleeing to the woods to escape the plague. After praying for a sign, lo and behold a chance to leave the monastery comes his way in the form of Ulric (Sean Bean). He is a knight on a mission to investigate a village said to be immune from the plague. Osmund joins the merry band of medieval mercenaries (and their sinister-looking torture apparatus) as a guide and leads them to the untouched village.

This is a time of belief in the supremacy of God's will. Superstition is rife and in Ulric's mind the only plausible explanation for the village's immunity is black magic. The knight is convinced that necromancers - evil spirits raising bodies from the dead - have taken over this village.

After seeing so much toil, death and misery, it is a breath of fresh air when they reach their destination to be greeted by smiling villagers. There are even women wearing nice dresses.

The beautiful Langiva, the village leader, befriends Osmund, but his faith is put to the test when Langiva reveals that she is in fact a necromancer. She offers him what he most desires and what no one else can give him, but in return he has to renounce his faith in God.

What follows is a long drawn-out stand-off between the villagers and the mercenaries during which clumsy parallels are drawn between the ruthless fanaticism of those who believe in God and those who let black magic rule their lives.

But instead of letting us sit back and observe how a society creates explanations for events beyond its control, Black Death tries to trick us into thinking this irrational, medieval reasoning might just be valid. Smith tries to make the audience believe in the supernatural - strange in a film that is so intent on hammering home historical references, often to the detriment of ongoing narrative. (At one point, the mercenaries come across a group of flagellants wading up a river whipping themselves - who seem to have no other purpose than to demonstrate their existence - and who disappear almost as soon as they have arrived).

Just as we are lulled into thinking that perhaps this is going to morph into some kind of fantasy-horror movie, suddenly we are back where we started and the leap of faith is thrown back in your face. Langiva is not actually a sorceress and has tricked Osmund and the villagers into believing she has supernatural powers. You can almost sense the director sitting back in his chair, smiling smugly, his moral lesson bestowed. See how easy it is to be taken in? Don't you have empathy now for these men and their morals?

Told through the characters themselves, these complexities would have been much more convincing. But linear "quest" films are often so plot driven that there is little room for any character development. It didn't hurt Lord of the Rings, but Tolkein's tale spawned three films. In the case of Black Death, there is so much focus on the action that when some of the mercenaries meet their inevitable end it is difficult to summon up any emotional response. It is only Osmund, with his tortured relationships with Averill and God, who demonstrates any depth of character.

As far as the earthy, bodily specifics go, Black Death gives us the medieval plague in all its gruesome detail. But do not expect more than that.

The verdict: 3 out of 10.

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