Black Death (2010)

Starring: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, Kimberley Nixon, Tim McInnerny, John Lynch

Directed by: Christopher Smith

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Sean Bean as Ulric in Christopher Smith's Black Death

Is it just me, or do you sometimes find it hard to take Medieval films seriously? Blame it on Monty Python and the Holy Grail or too many evenings spent squeezed into a beer tent between a Viking puffing his way through a packet of Marlboro's and an armoured knight wearing trainers, but all too often films such as Braveheart and the recent Robin Hood put me too much in mind of coconut shells and grovelling in the mud to keep a straight face.

Christopher Smith's Black Death, however, takes itself very seriously and – remarkably – allows its audience to take it seriously too. And so we should, for it's a bold, uncompromising film with some seriously dark subject matter at its core.

The year is 1348 and the eponymous Black Death is sweeping the land. Corpses lie piled in the streets (in such a grimly realistic way it almost stops you thinking 'Bring out your dead!'/'I'm not dead yet!' – almost). Freckle-faced Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) is a young monk devoted to God yet dissatisfied with a life confined within monastic walls. So when a mysterious knight called Ulric (Sean Bean – apparently they let him keep his Boromir costume) knocks at the monastery gates, seeking a guide, Osmund gladly volunteers, not realising that he has in fact signed up for the 'journey to hell'.

For Ulric is captaining a band of torturers and witchfinders bound for a remote village in the marshes that has somehow remained immune to the pestilence, rumour has it due to its inhabitants' rejection of Christianity and practice of Satanic rites and necromancy. Their mission: to capture the necromancer and perpetrate God's justice.

Sean Bean as Ulric and Eddie Redmayne as Osmund in Black Death

While the story may echo the ambiguous plot arc of The Wicker Man (a scene in which Ulric erects a wicker cross on the altar of an abandoned church serves to underline the parallel) the mood is pure Witchfinder General, another film that, despite a low budget and some questionable effects, is relentlessly harsh and hopeless.

A world away from the gleeful gore of Creep or the slash 'em up comedy of Severance, Black Death is a film with something to say. But far from being an attack of Christianity, it emphasises the fact that a fanatical belief in anything, from God to Satan to revenge to ruthless, unwavering belief in your own rectitude, is bound to bring suffering in the end.

Bleak, at times bloody and ultimately thought-provoking, Black Death treads firmly in the footsteps of the finest British horror flicks. Be sure you follow it up.

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