When films explore a force of nature, they tend to be hit or miss. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening attempted to depict powerless people pitted against forces beyond their control, but wound up an unintentionally funny disaster. Many times, the force itself becomes a metaphor for some cultural zeitgeist and the focus is lost.
Set in 1348 in the middle of the Black Plague outbreak, the film follows Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a novice monk who is drafted into guiding a group of warriors led by Ulric (Sean Bean).There are rumors of a village untouched by the plague, and Ulric has been told it’s led by a necromancer.
The mission is simple: find the village and kill the leader.
There are elements of horror, some minor action moments and a smattering of character story tropes to be found. On both topical and thematic levels, Black Death takes several cues from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, but the film never decided what direction to go in.
One thing the film does nail is its tone. A sense of creeping unease permeates every scene and death is a constant presence in the film. The plague’s effects are shown early and often.
Dead bodies litter the screen, and graveyards, masked doctors and burned corpses are a reoccurring sight.
This lends itself to the picture’s unique aesthetic. Put simply, Black Death is a very desaturated film. The colors are washed out and there’s a grittiness to the film stock that gives the film a rough feel. It’s also quite dirty, since the characters are soiled with dust and grime.
When the warriors and Osmund finally arrive at the village, the desaturation remains, but the grime is gone.
It’s an understated, but extremely effective touch. When they find the village’s leader, Langiva (Carice van Houten), she is a clean, colorful figure who stands entirely at odds with the world the travelers know.
The film’s main problem, however, lies in its pacing. Black Death creates an unsettling atmosphere perfectly, but it never follows through and lacks true payoff. There is no escalation or sense of growing dread.
Things simply happen, often at odd moments and without buildup. In fact, the most intense scene is the opening, with its stark and brutal portrayal of the plague.
Sadly, the film fails to recapture its sense of overwhelming doom and the rest of it feels stagnant.
Whether the admittedly lean script or the directing of Christopher Smith is to blame, Black Death suffers greatly from its failure to engage the audience, especially in the climax.
But where the script and direction fall flat, the acting compensates.
Instead of falling into clichés, as period pieces often do, the three leads give their characters nuances and unique tics.
Bean’s Ulric is a commanding figure, never shouting or getting angry, but always hinting at some seething conflict beneath his assured exterior. He brings a kind of fanaticism and driving motivation to his character that pushes through the poor pacing and gives Ulric more dynamic elements than the film would otherwise possess.
Osmund, the Marlowe figure in the film’s Conrad-esque approximation is a monk, but Redmayne does not create a naïve character. He’s worldly and keeps secrets from his fellow monks. It’s a unique angle and ends up providing the crux of the film’s climax.
But the best performance comes from van Houten, who steals scenes from the moment she appears.
She is somehow able to master a commanding presence without ever reflecting rage or stubbornness.
Instead, she brings a coyness to Langiva. Compared to the film’s constant seriousness, this only adds to her and the village’s disturbing quality.
Sadly, even the actors can’t keep the film from failing.
There’s a great premise behind Black Death, but it is never fully explored.
The way people react to the plague is often brought up and the film could have been an exploration into human response to fear, but it never stops to capitalize this fear.
What audiences are left with is an indecisive period piece and a waste of a great cast. Black Death works as a look into a world and culture of constant morbidity. In the end, it’s a dead film.