Monday, 21 June 2010

Black Death


Directed by: Christopher Smith
Written by: Dario Poloni
Starring: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, John Lynch & Carice van Houten

This isn't strictly an action film, though it does feature some pretty cool sword fight action, but merits a mention as it's a brilliant, no-holds-barred, darkly Gothic, medieval thriller that I just can't help reviewing.

Ulrich (Bean) leads his motley band of soldiers through a plague ridden England to a remote village which appears to be a safe haven from the disease running rampant through the country. Hearing stories of cannibalism and raising the dead taking place in the village, Ulrich has been charged with bringing back the necromancer accused of these crimes. A deeply religious man himself, Ulrich is determined to free the village of whatever evil grip it has found itself in. Along for the journey, and acting as their guide, is young monk Osmund (Redmayne), who has his own ulterior motives for leaving the monastery. The two, along with the rest of the band, are pushed to the limits of their faith and ultimately their lives are put on the line as what they find at the remote village is beyond anything they could have expected.

Make no doubt about it, this is a dark, violent and depressing film. The film delves into the dark heart of a turbulent time in history and while the relentlessness of the downbeat nature may put some off, Black Death proves itself to be a challenging and rewarding experience that sticks to its dark roots. About as Gothic and gritty as a medieval thriller gets, Smith's film immerses the viewer into the grim world of medieval England. There is no romanticism here about a bygone age but a film that refreshingly and convincingly recreates a dark period in history. While it piles on the gore and grue, courtesy of several set-pieces of sword swinging action, the film essentially deals with Religion, looking at both those who are avid followers of the Lord and those who have rejected him and how both cannot seem to get away from using violence to get their points/beliefs across. Its a murky, morally corrupt path the film walks and it embraces the dark ethos of both sides of the warped coin with gusto, no one able to escape the violence that seems so inherent in whatever they decide to believe. The heart of the film, and a very black heart it is, is Osmund whose personal journey is the backbone of the film. Brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, the actor throws himself into the role giving us the only somewhat sympathetic character for us viewers to relate to. Supported by an able cast including the always reliable and underrated Sean Bean (who gets a scene you are not going to forget anytime soon!), the striking Carice van Houten and a simply awesome John Lynch, the cast and crew commit themselves whole hearted to delivering a tough and tense medieval shocker.

Be warned: this is a violent film. Too violent? Perhaps for some but Smith keeps a lot of things suggestive, just showing enough gore to showcase the gruesome nature of the characters actions. He also orchestrates some incredibly tense sequences including the climactic inquisition/crucifixion sequence and a bloody battle seeing the soldiers fend off a group of vicious woodland warriors. Lots of hack and slash action that is tightly choreographed but unfortunately marred somewhat by jittery camerawork. On the downside, Smith does resort a little too much to shaky handheld camerawork that isn't always needed and some may also be put off by the over serious nature of the film, there being no real let up from the doom, gloom and despair the characters must contend with.

However, this (at least to this reviewer) is what makes Black Death work so well: its commitment to delivering a dark journey into the hell hole of the human soul. Despite a little too much shaky camerawork and a couple of clunky scenes of exposition, Black Death is an exceptional piece of medieval horror. Sure it has its pulpy roots but an on form cast and director sticking to the dark nature of the film (right up until the very last frame) make this a refreshingly adult thriller that isn't afraid to paint its characters in shades of grey and never cheapens its story for the sake of spectacle. Not for the squeamish, mind.

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