For what I thought would be a pretty standard horror with perhaps a slightly off beat style turned out to be a dark thriller with a strong sense of intelligence and history, a film that brings forward some thoughtful views on religion and fanaticism, some issues that are still relevant today.
Now that wasn't what I expected from the Christopher Smith horror film that I felt the film had been marketed as.
He asks his god for a sign, a sign which he believes arrives that very day in the guise of a group of soldiers sent by a bishop on a holy mission. They've been sent to discover why a local village is remaining plague free, a common belief being that a warlock is using magic to keep the village safe.
The soldiers have been sent to find the warlock and take them back to the bishop for god’s punishment, but they need a guide to cross the marsh to the village. Osmund sees his sign and the chance to meet with Averill who is waiting for him in the forest on the way to the village.
I have to address the biggest thing for me about Black Death, the surprise that it was actually a very dark, tense and rather intelligent film that had a strong script and a surprising list of actors. Far from the cross of fantasy and British horror with the odd bit of comedy that I had expected, it became quite a powerful thriller that was set in a much more realistic middle age period than you’d see in most other films. In fact the film has more in common with The Wicker Man than it does with anything else you might expect from the blurb and the previous works of the director.
There were some great turns to the story, particularly in the latter half, and it’s surprising to find the focus of the film is Osmund rather than anyone else. To add to that the story has some very key moralistic threads about how humans misuse the idea of religion, whatever religion it may be, to their own ends and to the detriment of others.
One of the producers in the extras of the film highlight the modern day parallel, which to be honest I didn’t even pick up on until I indulged in the extras, the idea of fundamentalism in religion and what it takes to create someone with so much blind religious hatred that they will stop at nothing to destroy everything that isn’t their own religion.
The story I’ve described doesn’t really take place until the later stages of the film and what we get before this is a good amount of time spent on the development of the characters and the group as a whole, something that we so often don’t see given the required space. It takes some time to develop the period as well as the characters, but what’s especially strong and gives a great pay off later, is it builds the relationships between them and so when they do arrive at the village what happens then bears extra weight.
I did enjoy the build up of the film to the main event as much as the main event itself, and the fact that it never leaps into the supernatural is a huge plus point for the film, something that we hear from the extras that the original version of the script did. In fact there’s nothing in here that relates to those atypical medieval films we’ve seen before and reality is held close to the heart of this film throughout, even when they arrive at the village.
When the film does get there and the story takes a different turn it doesn’t become about special effects, huge sacrifices and fiery demons, once again it’s kept on a very real level and focussed on the people. There’s not even a great deal of horror and the scenes that could be taken as typical horror feel far from it, in fact the true horror of the film comes from acts carried out in the name of these religions.
Again, it plays much more as a dark thriller with commentary on real life than it does a medieval horror film, and all that by the way is good, for that means tension, suspense, connection with characters, and some great surprises a few of which you really don’t see coming. I loathe to speak about them for fear of spoiling it for you, but to suffice to say they provide some of the high points of the film.
I genuinely wasn’t sure how events would turn out and was again surprised to find that the film keeps that firm focus on the characters and our feet planted firmly on the ground right up to the end.
The cast had an interesting mix of names, and it took me back when I read it – Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, Eddie Redmayne and John Lynch caught my eye and were responsible for delivering some of the best moments of the film.
Although I think that Sean Bean's character shared a few similarities with the one he played in Lord of the Rings, and let’s face it, it’s incredibly hard to disassociate the two considering how well known and well played that role was, he does have a slightly different slant here and a great pay-off at the end.
Carice van Houten was another powerful talent that is surprising to see here, and she has a pivotal role which I felt was a little under used, as is true for her cohort Tim McInnerny and the Abbot David Warner.
However the best performances are undoubtedly Eddie Redmayne as Osmund who delivers some strong changes of character and hugely emotional scenes, and I have to agree with the director who points out the powerfully delivered lines by John Lynch from the water cage.
I have been thinking about the ending for a while now, through the extras and the audio commentary, and I do think that it didn't deliver as much as the rest of the film promised. There's another ending there that could have been stronger but moved on from the actual story of the power behind the village to Osmund's own transformation, and while I found that interesting as well, it too didn't deliver as well as I had hoped.
The film delivers a strong audio track with very good use of the surround speakers, particularly around the scene at the end in the marsh. It really does pull you into the scene and add to the tension of the moment and confusion of the character.
It's not just that scene though, there's a good spatial awareness of the audio throughout the film and the rears are used for atmosphere and movement quite a number of times to positive effect.
The score is strong and the opening scenes have some of the most powerful musical moments that strengthen the levity of the events.
There's a definite grain to the film from start to finish although some scenes carry it more than others, but it does make the film feel less crisp and clean as modern day.
It does seem a little strange that some scenes are shot rather too roughly with a hand-held camera when there are equally as many strong tracking and crane shots keeping the camera fixed. I did wish sometimes that the camera would be a little more steady or indeed totally fixed more often, however once I heard the director talking about it in the extras I did understand the artistic reasoning behind it.
Audio Commentary with Director Christopher Smith; Deleted Scenes; Deleted Scenes with Director’s Commentary; Bringing Black Death to Life Featurette; Behind the Scenes Footage; Interviews with Director Christopher Smith, Producer Phil Robertson, Producer Jens Meurer, Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, Eddie Redmayne, Kimberly Nixon, Emun Elliott, Andy Nyman, John Lynch, Johnny Harris, Tim McInnerny; Photo Gallery; Trailer
The deleted scenes aren't that revealing to watch, but when you then watch them with the director's commentary in the extra that follows there's a lot more to be had from them and it’s a good idea to watch them on their own first.
Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary:
For each of the deleted scenes we’ve already watched, the director talks us through them and more importantly why he decided to cut each. This ends up being rather insightful.
Bringing Black Death to Life Featurette:
This is an interesting featurette that interviews all the main cast members, producers and director about the film and the experience, inter-spaced with footage from behind the scenes relating to the interview you’re hearing. It’s one of the better featurettes I’ve seen and gives a good insight into the way that Christopher Smith works on set and just how nice a guy Sean Bean is and why he should be in more film leads.
Behind the Scenes Footage:
This featurette gives us general behind the scenes footage from certain moments through the film showing the actors at rest, rehearsal and discussion with the director. Some of the sequences are interesting to watch and give a little insight into the filming.
Interview with Director Christopher Smith:
The interview provides some interesting comments from the director who talks about the story, filming on location, and working with Sean Bean.
Interview with Producer Phil Robertson:
The producer talks a little about the film, the director, Sean Bean.
Interview with Producer Jens Meurer:
The producer talks a little about the film, the director and the parallels of the story with the modern day.
Interview with Sean Bean:
The star talks about working on location, the story and the period setting, and the fight scenes, something he particularly enjoyed. This gives a little seen side of the man, as he smiles and jokes and seems far less serious as the roles he plays would suggest.
Interviews with the Cast:
Carice van Houten, Eddie Redmayne, Kimberly Nixon, Emun Elliott, Andy Nyman, John Lynch, Johnny Harris, Tim McInnerny talk about the film, the script, the locations, the director, the other actors and their characters.
I enjoyed Black Death, mainly because it turned out to be quite a different film from the one I thought I was going to watch in the first place. The thriller aspect is much stronger than you'd expect and the medieval setting doesn't stand out in the fore as you might expect, the focus becomes the characters, the events around them, and the religious aspects. It's not too far from the truth to make some comparisons with The Wicker Man.
However the film does suffer from two aspects, one is the shaky camera that seems to come out a little too often, although it is worth mentioning how realistic the fight scene is and how the camera is much more controlled here, and the ending which I didn't think quite nailed me or the story as I had hoped.
Still the journey there with the characters and the story is a good one, and while it might not hit the mark perfectly, it's a good thriller and has something positive to say. Then there's the Blu-ray offering which delivers a great audio track and a good set of extras.
Don't get caught up with the belief that Black Death is another British lower budget horror film, it isn't, it's much more.