A truly bleak world view permeates Christopher Smith’s Black Death (2010), which is as much about the 21st century world as it is the 14th century one in which it is set. The film’s oppressive vision of the brutality and fanaticism of middle age life throw into sharp relief the central theme, which reaches forward through time, as Black Death is both a kind of medieval Western and an allegorical exploration of the madness and futility of religious extremism.
Neither a true horror film nor exactly a thriller, the film takes place as the titular disease is ravaging the land. It follows a grim knight, Ulrich (Sean Bean), who recruits a young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), to guide him and a rag‐tag band of mercenaries in search of a village that has remained untouched by the pestilence. They suspect necromancy. They bring a torture machine.
Director Christopher Smith has previous for comic lo‐fi horror with films such as Severance (2006) and Creep (2004). With Black Death, however, he moves into the vaguer realm of 70’s mystery chillers such as The Wicker Man (1973). There are echoes, too, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) in the characters spiralling delusions in the face of their appalling circumstances.
The acting is exemplary and the delivery of the cod-medieval script appealingly deadpan. Sean Bean’s customarily dangerous screen presence, perched somewhere on the knife‐edge between malignant darkness and defiant heroism, fits the remorseless zealot Ulrich like a glove. Eddie Redmayne’s wide‐eyed monk, Osmund, is a more hopeful and, ultimately, more unsettling figure for the viewer, but that is surely the point. He is caught in a world he is initially frustratingly unable to influence. Caught between physical love and blind devotion to God he eludes both. But, neither Bean nor Redmayne’s character truly wears the hero mantle. The film accepts a central void instead. It is in the absence of an empathetic central character to take the viewer through the cruel landscape of the film that it is so effective. The viewer casts around for central reassurance and for the possibilities of hope, neither of which really arrive.
There is no good, there is no bad – only people hurting one another. Black Death prefers the messy, nasty ambiguities of life to bland reassurance, and the grimness is both compelling and thought provoking.