Review: ‘Black Death’

They didn't have razors in 1348. Magnolia
They didn't have razors in 1348. Magnolia

1. "Black Death" acts as if no one ever thought to make a movie about the bubonic plague before. It is earnest and serious and contemplative and even theological, and for that, I give it considerable credit. It doesn't get caught up in religous parable -- there's mercifully little "and look, it's the same way today" hokum -- and it doesn't treat the time period as helplessly stupid and backward. It just tells a straightforward story about what it must have been like to live through the black plague. This is admirable, I suppose, but it's also a bit dull.

2. The black death was all about religion -- or at least the reaction to it was --- so "Black Death" understandably focuses on a monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who is conflicted with his faith, like every young religious figure in the history of movies. Osmund opens the film telling his lifelong unrequited love to leave the monastery, for reason I didn't quite understand, and awaiting word from The Lord on how to respond to the ongoing plague. He receives word in the person of Ulric (Sean Bean), a noble holy warrior who brings tales of a village in the hinterlands -- I think he actually said "hinterlands" -- that has been untouched by the black death. Ulric needs a guide, and Osmund knows the area; thus, word from God.

3. It quickly becomes apparent that Ulric and his motley crew of mercenaries aren't there to save the village; they're there to burn it down in the name of God. The presumption is that if they are untouched by the plague, they must be using "necromancy" and devil-worship to stay alive. (Hey, it was the 14th century.) So after a few unimaginatively shot scenes of sword battle, and some obligatory "meet the motley crew" dialogues, our gang comes across the village, which seems placid enough. TOO PLACID. The village is run by a beautiful woman named Langiva, and everyone is happy and healthy and in full-on party mode. This of course makes Ulric want to kill everyone because they are not with God. It's one of the film's occasional interesting pivots from favoring one religious extreme to another. Its message might be "they're both harmful." It doesn't linger too long on it, either way.

4. So, the film becomes a battle for Osmund's soul, as the villagers drug and imprison the crusaders and slaughter them one by one if they won't renounce God. (One eventually does, but they slaughter him anyway. Tough racket.) Langiva reveals that she has Osmund's girly pal, who he thought was dead but now appears to have risen from the dead. Will he abandon God because this village is safe and has his wannabe lover? Or will he remain faithful in the eyes of God? And what's with his hair? (Seriously, what's with his hair?)

5. This is all done respectfully, and with a certain solemnity. But, in all due deference: What's the fun in that? Shouldn't a movie that exists in 2011 about the 14th Century bring a little more panache to the proceedings? Am I rude in wanting a little more swashbuckling, or some more blood and guts, or so more prurience? Let's rev it up a little bit; "Black Death" rarely rises above the dramatic tension level of an NGC re-enactment of a professor's lecture. The ethical dilemma at its core only seems like a dilemma using 14th century standards, which is understandable but still a bit empty: This is a movie that never quite makes you feel like it was to live through the black plague. It allows you to watch it from a distance, safely, never in the muck, never facing the same choices its characters do. Thus, the Big Turn at the end, the ultimate fate, never feels urgent: It just feels like the next thing that happened to a guy who died 750 years ago so what's-to-get-worked-up-about? "Black Death" has a few ideas on its mind, but it treats them as if they are sacred revelations that only it has discovered. This is a movie about the year 1348 that feels made in the year 1348.

Grade: C+