I made a promise, some time ago, that I would avoid discussing religion overmuch, if at all, on this blog. Yet when Black Death won the poll it was clear that I’d have to sprain that promise. Since it’s in the context of a movie, I won’t consider it entirely broken. There’s also the fact that this film is unflinching, uncompromising and unbiased in its bleak view of religion… and how little it’s changed since the time period in which it’s set.
The time is 1348 AD, and the place is England. The bubonic plague ravages the countryside and small villages are especially susceptible to the pestilence. There is rumor of one, however, where not only is the plague not present, but the dead are coming back thanks to a demon or a witch. While some believe that God sent the plague to punish mankind, others think that demons like this one are the cause, and an envoy of the bishop has come with several hard men to root out the demon. He conscripts a young monk to guide him, but the monk has plans of his own.
True to the fire and brimstone of the period, a good descriptor for this movie is ‘grim’. The heroes are not shining examples of honor or virtue, even when compared to the worst amongst their opposing number. While the men we follow are servants of the church, they’re not paragons of Christianity, nor are the people of the village they finally arrive in kind and generous. Black Death calls into question the intelligence and decency of anyone who takes the world around them on faith alone without preamble or a moment’s thought, and while the setting is in a dark age of human history, the question remains if people today are any different.
At least we have slightly more sanitary infrastructure these days.
Thankfully, this isn’t a movie interested in beating you over the head with its message. It simply presents its perspective and lets you dwell on it. While the writing isn’t necessarily stellar material, the screenwriters have the decency to leave most of the heavier stuff as visuals and action rather than heavy-handed speeches. The direction clearly delights in the heavy mists, dour arms and armor and spattering gore of most medieval epics, and Black Death does a good job of conveying the dark atmosphere of the age. The best part of the film, though, is the extremely strong cast.
Considering Sean Bean dominates most of the cover art you’ll see, you might consider him to be the only actor of note in the piece, and that this flick tries to squeak by on his star power along. You’d be wrong. I was surprised to see David Warner turn up as the abbot in our starting location, while veteran actors like Eddie Redmayne, Tim McInnerny (of Black Adder fame) and a few guys from EastEnders join Sean’s ragtag band. And that striking blonde wearing red working opposite Sean is none other than Carice van Houten of Black Book and Repo Men fame. Watching them together makes me wish they’d share a couple scenes in the Game of Thrones series, considering Miss van Houten landed the role of Melisandre.
Serving R’hllor since 1348.
All in all, I’m glad I watched Black Death. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen set in this time period or tackling the subject of religion, but it certainly wasn’t as terrible as I was dreading it’d be. The mostly realistic bent of its production, the very solid acting and the way the whole thing slides in situation from bad to worse for the characters is actually somewhat gripping in a way I did not expect. I say, put this one on your Netflix Instant queue. You might be surprised.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.
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