Monday, February 4, 2019


Christopher Smith's film is a horror movie set during the mid-14th century plague that devastated Europe. It's a horror film by virtue of its treatment of paganism. Were it not a horror film, the village against which the knight Ulric (Sean Bean) launches a mini-crusade probably would be portrayed consistently as a utopian island of tolerance for many ways of knowing in a polluted sea of Christian intolerance. But because it is a horror film, the village's female ruler, Langiva (Carice von Houten) can be portrayed as just as vicious as Ulric's little band of secular inquisitors. They've heard rumors of a village that somehow has held the plague at bay, but allegedly at the cost of human sacrifice. They're guided to the place by Osmund (pre-stardom Eddie Redmayne), a monk recently freed from quarantine with an apparent clean bill of health. He's had enough of monastic life, however, and wants to run off with a local girl, Averill (Kimberly Nixon). Guiding Ulric to the mystery village will let Osmund keep a rendezvous with her, but it looks as if Averill is taken by local brigands whom Ulric's men barely fight off. Langiva's village looks like a welcome respite, even if it looks too clean and neat to be true to the experienced moviegoer's eye.

Sure enough, Langiva has drugged the wine she offers to Ulric's men and soon has them penned up for sacrifice -- unless they recant their Christian faith. She's not only as intolerant as her antagonists, but she has, if anything, less honor. When one of Ulric's men cracks and recants, she has her henchmen escort him away, only to execute him at a discreet distance from the village. What was the point of that but pure malevolence? Yet at the same time, there's a hint that Langiva has real power. She reveals to Osmund that she's recovered Averill's body, and later shows that she can resurrect the dead. And yet, unsurprisingly, something's not right about the revived girl. She can't talk and seems to have lost her mind. Convinced that she's suffering a fate worse than death, Osmund heartbrokenly restores her to the grave -- only for Langiva to torment him with the cruel truth. Of course she was a fraud all along and had simply pulled a Serpent and the Rainbow type stunt on Averill to impress her followers and Osmund. Averill had never actually died until her beloved killed her.

Needless to say, Osmund is a ready collaborator when Ulric finally makes his move, which proves surprising, plausible and cruelly vindictive. Earlier in the picture, he'd had to put down one of his own men who'd come down with the plague. Now, before Langiva has him quartered, the aspiring martyr reveals that he, too, has the plague -- and, presumably, so will much of the once-pristine village.  Of course, this means that a lot of arguably innocent people are going to suffer, while Langiva herself manages to slink away to an unclear fate.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here about the consequences of mutual intolerance, but because Black Death is a horror film it has the courage not to let anyone learn the lesson. Instead, the denouement shows Osmund as a remorseless, delusional witch hunter, torturing innumerable women, guilty or not, in pursuit of the elusive Langiva. I dig a bleak worldview like that, and the action and acting here weren't bad, either. It's no masterpiece by any stretch, but Smith's horror approach gives us probably the best possible Black Death that we could expect.

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