Unpredictability exalts 2010’s Black Death above many rivals in the horror genre. Director Christopher Smith (Triangle) provides not only a plot with unforeseeable outcomes, but also gray areas regarding characters. Unlike so many films that utilize a good/evil diametric, with Black Death, viewers may have difficulty determining with whom their loyalties lie.
Bleakly set in medieval times when the Black (aka Bubonic) Plague has decimated much of England, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk, has gone against his vows and fallen in love with Averill (Kimberley Nixon). He sends her away from his monastery after the plague arrives in an attempt to keep her safe, but he longs to join her. He finds an opportunity when a group of Christian soldiers with an unknown quest recruit him to lead them to a village that lies near the place Osmund sent Averill. Will the inexperienced and already compromised Osmund prove equal to the task?
After struggles on the journey and scenes in which Osmund questions the motives and morality of the rugged soldiers, led by Ulric (Sean Bean), they arrive at the village, unique from all others in that it has been untouched by the plague. The village seems a strange kind of Eden (reminiscent of The Wicker Man) led by Hob (Tim McInnerny) and Langiva (Carice van Houten). Ulric does not reveal his purpose to the villagers, which is to expose a necromancer. Ulric believes that among the villagers lies a practitioner of black magic who possesses the power to bring the dead back to life. Young Osmund remains unsure which of the soldiers or villagers are worthy of his allegiance. Although the film’s outcome is likely to surprise viewers and leaves a few aspects open to interpretation, the plot points add up in a sensible way.
Nick Schager of Slant Magazine states, in his March 5, 2011, review, “Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell.”
Released amidst a profusion of current day and futuristic apocalyptic films – i.e., Daybreakers (2009), The Crazies (2010), 30 Days of Night (2007), The Book of Eli (2010), Zombieland (2009), Stake Land (2010), Priest (2011), Legion (2010) – being set in the middle of a true historical pandemic sets Black Death apart from these others. The action in the film turns brutal but seems true to that very dark time in history. Black Death is a well-crafted film, excellently written and acted, with weighty moral dilemmas for consideration. It just doesn’t get much better than this.