Saturday, December 18, 2010

Film Review: BLACK DEATH (2010)

Black Death
Written by Dario Poloni
Directed by Christopher Smith

And our journey through the films of Christopher Smith comes to an end (for now), with his latest, Black Death.  This is a bit of a departure for Smith, as not only is it the first of his films that isn't straight horror, it's also the first time he's working from someone else's script.

As such, it doesn't demonstrate the leap in creative growth that we've seen through the course of his previous films (Creep (2004), Severance (2006), and Triangle (2009)), but it's still a sure-handed piece of work that lives up to its full potential.

For the uninitiated, Black Death is set during the late 14th Century during the height of the Bubonic Plague in England.  A young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is struggling with his love of a young lady, Averill (Kimberley Nixon) and his duties to the monastery.  In order to save her from the spread of the disease, Osmund sends her away from the city, where she promises to wait for him in the nearby forest for a week.  If he doesn't decide to leave the monastery by then, he'll never see her again.

After praying for a sign from God to help him make his decision, Ulric (Sean Bean) arrives.  Ulric has been tasked with investigating a local village where it is rumored that the dead walk the earth and the plague has not struck, all thanks to the villagers' pact with the Devil.  As this village is very near where Averill is waiting, Osmund takes this as his sign and volunteers to lead Ulric and his motley band to the village.

Spoilers Ahead!

I wasn't sure what to expect going into this film.  The reviews I'd seen hadn't been glowing, although I didn't read anything really bad.  I was pretty sure we were going to be dealing with a supernatural threat, and quite possibly medieval zombie action.

But that's not the case.

And it's all the better because of it.

What we get instead is a well-written, well-acted, and well-directed action film that avoids easy answers and actually lets character and plotting take the forefront, rather than extended action sequences (Neil Marshall's Centurion, I'm looking at you!).  It doesn't hurt that we have Sean Bean sharing the lead with the young Eddie Redmayne.

Both actors do exceedingly well with their roles, and while Redmayne (if IMDB is to be believed) has only been working in film regularly for the past 4 or 5 years, he easily holds his own with the more experienced, and frankly quite legendary Bean.  He even gets to play scenes with the even more legendary David Warner as The Abbott.

Osmund goes into this story as a naive youth and exits a cruel, cynical adult, forever scarred by his experiences.  It's a very satisfying narrative arc and Redmayne pulls it off without a hitch.

Sean Bean once again proves that he can do anything when a camera is on him.  I have to admit, I think he seems most natural with long hair and a beard, swinging a sword around than in any other type of film role I've seen him play.  His Ulric is far more complex and believable than he has any right to be, and Bean's intensity brings an admirable morality to the character.  This is a man who is willing to do awful things in the name of God, but he knows they're awful things.  He never glamorizes or valorizes his choices.

It's a great performance, and it's complemented by the supporting cast, particularly Andy Nyman (Severance, Dead Set) as Dalywag, Johnny Harris (London to Brighton, RocknRolla) as Mold, and John Lynch (Hardware, Isolation) as Wolfstan.  Each of these characters could easily slide into one-dimensional caricatures, but the actors bring enough levels of motivation and emotional complexity to the roles that they each stand out as something special.

This is hard enough to do in a film set in the modern day, but to pull it off in a medieval setting in a genre picture is a real accomplishment.  And a large part of that success is down to the script.  What makes that even more impressive is that this is just Poloni's second screenplay (the first being 2006's Wilderness, directed by Michael J. Bassett)

By avoiding the supernatural and keeping the threats human, Poloni's script allows the actors to play their roles naturally, responding to the events going on around them without playing larger than life.  Not that the characters aren't larger than life at times, but because the story keeps them grounded in realism, they are able to respond in realistic ways to realistic dangers.

When you're main "supernatural" threat is being forced to renounce Jesus and embrace Satan, the actors are forced to respond emotionally with psychological desperation.  They don't have to have a magical swordfight with a CGI monster (I'm looking at you Michael J. Bassett's Solomon Kane!) to craft a satisfying climax.

That lack of the actualized supernatural threat also helps to make the actual psychological threat much more effective.  Langiva isn't really raising the dead, but using drugs to simulate death and then using that psychological impact to reinforce her power in the village.  The plague isn't avoiding the village because they sacrifice Christian blood to the devil (which they do), but because the disease isn't being spread thanks to the marsh that isolates the village from the rest of the world.  These are nice touches that help to make this film something a little more than your standard horror film.

There's horror here, don't get me wrong.  But it's the horror of the times and the setting, and it works better by sticking to that.  Even the twist at the end, works well in the context of the film and plays perfectly into the personalities and psychologies of the main characters.  Osmund's spiritual fall is as tragic as Ulric's sacrifice is horrifying.

Smith's direction here isn't as flashy or up-front as in his previous two films, but it is confident and, at times, beautiful to watch.  The only real weakness in the film for me was the brief coda, following Osmund's life after this experience.  I loved the content of it, but kind of wished it was fleshed out and used as a second film.  It worked in the context of what we had here, but I would have liked to have really gone into his head and experiences rather than have it narrated for us over the images.

But with that said, I loved this film.  So far, Smith is three for four as far as I'm concerned, and the film I didn't care for was his first, and there have been no mis-steps from that point on.


And a side note.  I did enjoy Centurion quite a bit.  Solomon Kane, not as much, but it was still fun.  And just for the record, the upcoming medieval supernatural thriller, Season of the Witch, starring Nicolas Cage, looks like a huge, steaming pile of shit that focuses on doing everything that Black Death avoided.  It looks like the anti-Black Death, actually, and I want nothing to do with it.

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