Let Us Prey
By Michael Nordine
Dir. Christopher Smith, U.K., Magnolia Pictures
Christopher Smith’s Black Death milks every bit of filth, cruelty, and unabashed grimness suggested by its title. Set in medieval England in the year of our lord 1348, under a God whose devotees feel alternately loved, tested, and punished by Him, the film centers on a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) leading the way to a remote village that has somehow avoided the pestilence that’s stricken nearly everywhere (and everyone) else. Colored in desaturated grays not unlike those of its contemporaries of both the art-house (Valhalla Rising) and Hollywood( Kingdom of Heaven) varieties, Smith’s film nonetheless distinguishes itself by matching its apocalyptic overtones with a look at man’s inherent brutality that’s more insistently dispiriting than thrilling.
“Even if you survive,” a bishop tells Osmund early on, “the world out there will change you.” Osmund’s response: “Perhaps that’s what I want.” His words come back to haunt him when he sets out on his quest and finds naught but sorrow along the way. Black Death draws heavily on elements of the archetypal heroic journey; that its bubonic goings-on are mired in dread is to be expected from a film that uses the plague as its narrative catalyst, but here the gloom is conducive to Osmund's narrative arc rather than self-serving. Given Smith’s rigorously cultivated brooding atmosphere, it should come as little surprise that this arc leans downward into the darkness rather than upward into the heavenly light. In terms of premise, there's little that’s unique about Black Death, but the film is executed in such a way as to stand on its own. Scene after scene (featuring battle, feast, or monologue) starts with a feeling of familiarity, yet ends with distinction. In a way, much of this is owed to the film's hybridity: neither wholly an action movie nor a drama, Black Death traverses a middle ground that helps set it apart from less—and more—ambitious movies.
Osmund is joined by many on his journey, none of whom announces himself more loudly than Ulric (Sean Bean). Given his sulking demeanor and style of dress, Ulric may as well be named Boromir (Bean’s character in Lord of the Rings), but the actor imbues what at first seems to be a stock character with a sense of urgency. He plays the part stoically, tending to hint at Ulric's inner demons—namely, a dead wife and child—more often than displaying them outright. “Here because Gold told him to come,” as one of his companions says of him, Ulric leads a roving band of (self-) righteous pseudo-crusaders heaven-bent on cleansing the as-yet-untouched village whose fortunate plight is, Ulric suspects, the workings of a necromancer. The stage is thus set early and well for an inevitable battle between the pious and the blasphemous, but Smith first turns his gaze toward something more nuanced: two conflicting methods of serving God. Osmund is a monk whose peaceful ways come after years in a monastery; Ulric is a world-weary crusader who at one point kills a woman (after appearing to save her) about to burn at the stake for witchcraft in order to ease what would have otherwise been a painful and drawn-out passing. That Osmund learns more of the sword than Ulric does of the pen is telling—Smith isn't presenting a peace offering so much as a reminder of the ease with which we slip into violence.
The answer to nearly every question asked onscreen—what, who, why—is capital-G God, but Black Death does not enshrine or critique religion so much as offer it as but one of the ways by which man does unto others. Cruelty comes from the faithful and nonbelievers alike here, and Smith does well in rarely (if ever) making one group appear more righteous or weaker than the other. The film has been deemed “a dark parable about how things haven't really moved on in the last 600 years” by the director himself, and indeed the back-and-forth sparring is akin to a nearly endless cycle of violence whose most poignant—and discouraging—effect is to point out that the troubles of today are nothing new.
Woe begets more woe in Black Death; its action scenes amplify misery rather than glory. Heads are lopped off; men are eviscerated on the cross and drown in their own blood. Though Smith delivers the genre goods we’ve come to expect from such a film—battles, visions of the dead returned from beyond—he does so in such a way as to make us question why we sought them out for entertainment in the first place. Within this blood-soaked milieu there exists a certain fraternity between Ulric and his men, one that shows its face in fittingly dark ways: “I’m glad it’s you,” the first plague-stricken member of the group says moments before his friend runs him through. Death can’t be avoided here, only made quicker.
Osmund encapsulates his conflict with Ulric when he rightly says, “Hunting necromancers and demons serves men more than it serves God.” In times of crisis, our tendency is too often to point the finger and create a bogeyman. Such constructs as the type Ulric and his men seek out are only as real as men make them; their actual power is no more than their perceived power. Few in Black Death are immune from vengeance and spite, even and especially the self-appointed arbiters of what's moral and good. “Where we are headed,” one of Ulric’s men says, “men have become savages.” But what he means as a warning is in fact a too-late proclamation of the state of affairs: men are already savages—they just tend not to show it until tested.