Black Death (2010)
The week I went on holiday it was impossible to avoid A Game Of Thrones which was an important reminder of just how big television is and just how small books are. It was also a reminder of how people tend to get locked into narratives: fantasy is a form of historical fiction; recent historical telly has got lots of shagging in it; fantasy fans are asexual. Cue mild cognitive dissonance from assorted journos and a million identical ledes. Anyway, I liked the preview for A Game Of Thrones but I won’t see it until it has aired in America then aired in the UK then been released on DVD. So to deal with the wait I settled for the next best thing: Black Death (2010).
Or so I thought but I’d made a major category error. Yes, it stars Sean Bean as a long-haired, sword-wielding soldiers but this is a long way from Boromir/Ned Stark territory. Rather than being fantasy or historical fiction, Black Death is a horror film. In particular, it is a horror film in which faith is an instrument of torture. I shouldn’t have been too surprised since the film is directed by Christopher Smith who was previously responsible for Creep (2004), Severance (2006) and Triangle (2009). I’ve not seen Creep but the other two interesting and effective horror films with lots of unusual touches. Black Death is certainly full of unusual touches but the result is bonkers and baffling rather than effective.
Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, a nervy young novice monk in 14th Century England at the height of the plague. His love for God is in conflict with his love (which we are given to believe has been consummated) for a local woman. When the plague reaches the monastery he forces her to flee to the forest for her safety, only to be torn by doubt over whether to follow her or stay with God. He prays for a sign. This appears in the form of Bean’s Ulric, a paladin and envoy of the local bishop. He requires a guide to take him and his men to nearby village which is hidden in the marshes and is rumoured to be free from the plague. More importantly, it is rumoured that the reason for this freedom is necromancy and it is Ulric’s job to lay God’s vengeance upon them.
Following this introduction, the next act unfolds as you would expect: Osmund signs up as the guide and gets to know the motley crew, the tension between being a man of God and a man of war is explored and, inevitably, the crew get all medieval on the arse of various persons who get in their way. In the midst of this is an important scene in which the crew come across a witch burning. Osmund, the man of God, pleads for the release of the young woman and argues that it is not God’s will. Ulric, a man of God but also a man of the world, stabs her to death. This is, he argues, an act of charity since even if they had freed her the mob would have found and burned her. At least he gave her a painless death (although, to be honest, it didn’t sound that painless.) There is a rich stew of faith, fear, gender and morality here and it is a stew that is brought to boiling point by the crucible of the God-less village.
The arrival of the crew at the village, following a journey through an exaggerated and heightened landscape, marks the turning point of the film. Their entrance is reminiscent of the arrival on Skull Island towards the beginning of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the initially seemingly abandoned village revealing itself to be populated by silent, haunting figures. Smith switches entirely into horror mode at this point. Despite the deliberately eerie way the scene is shot, the group receive an incongruously warm welcome from the head of the village, Hobb (Tim McInnery). The modern viewer is left to assume that the village is simply the innocent victim of rumour, just like the poor woman damned as a witch earlier in the film. Or, at least, we would be if everything wasn’t imbued with a heavy air of the unheimlich and the villagers weren’t quickly revealed to be a bunch of atheists. They make no secret of this and are ahistorically contemptuous of Christianity to these heavily-armed messengers from God.
This contempt comes most strongly from the village herbalist, Langiva, who is played with frankly bizarre modernity by Carice van Houten. With her modern manners, mannish behaviour, cartoon lasciviousness and foreign accent she simply screams witch. Could it be that Langiva really is a witch? At this point I started scratching my head. We know witches don’t exist. Equally we know that thousands of women were murdered in the false belief that they were witches. Is Smith making a film that seeks to justify this slaughter?
Two things happen next. Firstly, the villagers throw a feast in honour of their visitors, complete with gallons of booze and slutty local woman. Secondly, Langiva gives Osmund the come on and beckons him out into the night. You can see that this isn’t going to end well. In fact, Langiva has invited Osmund to watch a necromancy ceremony where, complete with prosthetic witch make up, she raises his beloved from the dead. Simultaneous his compatriots are all passing out from the drugged grog and being interred in Viet Cong-style water cages. So Langiva is a witch, right? Certainly the facial transformation, the magic and the plan to protect the village from the Black Death by crucify and disemboweling her Christian captives suggests so. This allows the film to easily cast Ulric and his crew as the good guys and lets us cheer at their subsequent escape and raving of the village. Hooray! The church has finally turned the tables on those bloody women!
This would be puzzling and unpalatable enough on its own but the film has a few more unwelcome surprises to spring. Because it turns out Langiva isn’t a witch at all. The make-up was just make up (remarkably quickly and professionally applied), the necromancy was just a trick (when Osmund saw her previously she was sleeping not dead – that old chestnut) and she is well aware that her sacrifice plan is bullshit. It is all just a rouse to give her power over the village, although why she wants or needs that power is left unexplored. So Langiva isn’t a witch, she is just a mad bitch pretending to be a witch. So that makes everything okay.
Black Death saves the the worst for last though. Until now Osmund has been the protagonist and our narrator, now that latter role transfers to Wolfstan (John Lynch), the last surviving member of the crew. In voice over he tells us how Langvia’s torments pushed Osmund over the edge and transformed him from sensitive novice to heretic-purging witchfinder. He travels up and down the country murdering innocent women in the guise of hunting his “witch”. Wolfstan audibly shakes his head at this sad news. Poor, poor Osmund. The film’s final words are Wolfstan’s heartfelt wish that Osmund achieved some measure of peace, words that take place against the backdrop of another young woman being sentenced to death by torture. I’d like to believe they were spoken with irony but given the clumsiness, confusion and attitude to women that proceeded this, I don’t think they.
The only major role for a woman is that filled by van Houten’s ridiculous performance but all the roles are underwritten. The relationship between Osmund and Ulric should be the core of the film but, after some initial gestures in this direction, the approach is abandoned to concentrate Osmund, only for that to be abandoned too. I liked the performances from both Redmayne and Bean but there is not enough from either. Both McInnery and Andy Nyman return from Serverance but both have substantially reduced parts that highlight the contrast between the films. Black Death was written by Dario Poloni and completely lacks the wit of Severence or the intelligence of Triangle, both of which Smith himself wrote. Here’s hoping that for his next film he gets his own pen out again.