BLACK DEATH Movie Review
BLACK DEATH is a movie you ought to avoid like… well, if not like the plague, at least like a nasty head cold.
A film whose pedigree rests on perennial supporting cast member Sean Bean (“Ronin,” “Patriot Games,” “National Treasure”) as its star has already begun on the wrong foot. There are some “small, serious film” producers in the credits here (“The Last Station,” “Mrs. Brown”); unfortunately they handed a possibly promising idea to a director and screenwriter who really don’t have much going for them.
Black Death begins with a title card far too typical of B-level medieval action/drama movies: “Britain, in the year of our Lord 1348.” I mean, come on. And then the inevitable voice-over begins. Follow that up with a terribly choppy opening sequence and production value that relied almost entirely on some cool old walls and castles (shot in Germany for England), and you know you’re in for a bit of a slog.
The story centers on Ulric (Bean), a knight of some kind, charged by the church to lead a band of nasty mercenary types to find a village in a marsh that has escaped the black death which is ravaging Europe. It is suspected that the village is under the protection of a necromancer who is also capable of bringing the dead back to life. With local monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as his guide, Ulric is to retrieve this necromancer and torture a confession out of him.
Director Christopher Smith (“Severance,” “Creep,” “Triangle” – yeah, I never heard of them either) has a penchant for handheld shaky-cam closeups that are way too modern for this type of picture, and more than once bordered on “Cloverfield”-type motion sickness. Screenwriter Dario Poloni (“Wilderness”) isn’t doing us any favors either. Lines like, “No! I drugged her!” feel like they shouldn’t be spoken in a movie that takes place before 1940, and take us well out of the period here. Incidentally, I was surprised to learn that this is being marketed as a horror film, as it is not in the least scary at any time.
There are some themes that would have lent the movie some dramatic weight had they been fully explored, or had any one of the characters been compellingly drawn enough for us to care about his personal quest — the nature of religion vs. superstition, for instance. I found myself without even the touchstone of knowing who I was supposed to be rooting for: the knights and monk we’d been following since the opening sequence, or the villagers they set upon in act 3.
Without need for the fearsome iron-maiden-like rack that Ulric and friends tow all the way across England, or the freezing cage full of water in which prisoners are later held, or of being drawn and quartered like one of the unlucky knights, I confess: I did not enjoy this film. And I rooted openly for the necromancer.