Our band of medieval life-takers and heart-breakers.

In keeping with my review of The Ledge, this here’s a pretty anti-religious movie in its own right. Of course, more than that Black Death is a movie about the consequences of cosmological lies and myth-making when they go horribly wrong, both for religious folks in the 13th century and the pagan townsfolk who are as susceptible to other forms of mysticism as they are to the Catholicism that reigned in that era.

Black Death is also the other medieval witch-hunter movie. Season of the Witch is similar in some ways but where Black Death is a smart, gritty thriller… Season is a terrible cartoon that isn’t even bad enough to be interesting. So make your witch-related plague movie of choice Black Death. Come for the Sean Bean, stay for the whack of awesome you’re bound to get.

No one fills out a suit of armor quite like Sean Bean.

Unbeknownst to many of his North American fans, Sean Bean tends to pad out his resume with smaller, sometimes very interesting British productions. Black Death is one such, in which Bean plays Ulric, a knight in service of the Pope who, along with his men-at-arms, hunts down witches who are generally blamed for the plague afflicting Europe. Ulric is a cold, determined man. A true soldier of God. Bean’s natural gruffness plays perfectly in a role that does go interesting places (toward the end especially) but is also one he could do in his sleep.

Eddie Redmayne, on the other hand, impresses again in medieval drag as the young monk Osmund who is recruited to guide Ulric’s band through the marshes to a town rumored to be under the protection of a witch and thus plague-free. Redmayne has a very recognizable face and has been in smaller parts in lots of shit (Pillars of the Earth in particular, in which he was fantastic). Here he plays a fairly faithful guy who is also looking for a way out after falling in love with a village girl. Ulric’s men are that way out, at least that’s the plan.

Along the way to the crossroads where Osmund plans to ditch Ulric and his men, quite a few episodic little adventures occur to give shading to the fucked up world of plague-struck Europe. As we go, we get to know a bit about Ulric’s roughnecks who range from the honorable Wolfstan (John Lynch) to a couple of scary cutthroat types. They all have assorted nasty weaponry and a veneer of cold-blooded killer going on.

While swords get brandished quite a bit and we’re always aware that this is a world where violence can occur at any time, the movie is not particularly action-packed. Rather, it features one incredibly brutal and brief battle about halfway through and a fairly violent climax. That said, what is here is pretty intense and well-realized, not unlike Ironclad. A welcome change of pace from the over-choreographed action in most movies.

The film is very well-photographed and many scenes are tinged with a sort of supernatural aura that ties in to developing themes.

Eventually, they reach the village where shit really hits the fan. There truly is no plague there and the witch turns out to be a beautiful woman aided by a village headman named Hob. The warriors are welcomed but also closely watched while Langiva (beautiful Carice van Houten delivering a seductive, sinister performance) tries to persuade Osmund to her way of thinking.

Langiva is a great villain. A lot of her anti-religious statements are spot-on, decrying the impotence and violence of the Papal regime while also negating the superstitions of the Christians in favor of her own brand, one where she can supposedly work miracles and bring the dead back to life.

Like a good Poe story, Black Death skirts the line between the truly supernatural and the exploitation of superstition. The things Osmund sees in that village forever change him and the story is very much about the cost paid by a person who has such a deep conflict in their “soul”, one that is never quite resolved. This conflict is the result of not knowing who to believe, where to turn, or what counts as right action in a religiously uncertain world.

More than anything, it’s Osmund’s love for the girl Averill that she uses to tempt him away from both his faith and Ulric’s mission.

The very fact that Sean Bean is in this movie is going to suggest to most people that he dies. He dies in everything and it’s kind of more about the quality of the death scene. Nothing will probably ever rival the death of Boromir but Black Death comes close just on the level of shocking badassery and spiteful, but just, wrath. It’s a pretty fucking crazy moment in the film, actually. Look forward to it.

Anyway, Black Death is a medieval movie with a brain. It’s saying something about the treacherous path presented by charlatans trying to sell you a brand of belief that is likely just smoke and mirrors. As such, it is fairly staunchly anti-religious and shows that for Osmund at least, a soul can only take so much before being torn completely apart leaving only rage.