Black Death is a low budget Brit-flick by Bristol-born director Christopher Smith, starring Sean Bean. It is almost entirely derivative and yet manages to be really quite entertaining, and even makes a cogent point or two about dogmatic religious observance. Set in England during the worst years of the bubonic plague, Bean plays a bishop’s envoy who is sent to a remote community in the middle of a swamp to apprehend the surely heretical leader of said community for churlishly refusing to let his brethren get buboed. Must be the Devil’s work!
The film begins at a monastery where a novice monk is procured to act as a guide, and we follow Bean, novice and a gnarly crew of mercenaries as they trek across plague-ravaged countryside, then cross the swamp in question to find that, initially at least, life amongst the disease-free proto-hippy commune seems rather lovely. Or is it? No, of course it isn’t, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a film. But neither are things as simple as you might expect – this is no Wicker Man type scenario – and Smith invites us to wonder whose dogmatic observance of strange rituals is the most harmful.
Black Death does not so much have cinematic touchstones as organ donors: the bleached, earthy hues of the cinematography and even some of the scenery chosen for backdrops are Lord of the Rings carbon copies; the method of imprisonment chosen is right out of The Deer Hunter; and then there are the more obvious comparisons with the gruelling Witchfinder General and 80s adaptation of The Name of the Rose.
But as unoriginal as it may be, I enjoyed the way Black Death didn’t pull its punches in pursuit of its central theme, and there are some really strong performances from the main players: with the possible exception of the rather blubbery and irritating monk, fine actors all. Stir in some tasty battle scenes and you have an eminently watchable film. And did I mention that Tim McInnerny also features, better known as Percy from Blackadder?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at enjoying Black Death so much: I hadn’t realised until writing this, but Smith’s last film was Triangle, a genuinely spooky and effective portrayal of one woman’s personal hell, which achieves a queasy effectiveness by being set on an apparently abandoned cruise liner in the Bermuda Triangle and by incorporating Memento-esque loopiness.
As a footnote, the me that is entranced, childlike, by entirely random, meaningless associations (the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon effect) was delighted to discover that not only does this post follow a completely unrelated one about a novel called The Black Book, but the female lead in Black Death, Carice van Houten, was also the star of Paul Verhoeven’s WW2 romp called, you guessed it: Black Book. Marvellous.