Set in 14th Century Britain; where everyone in the land was Catholic, and plague ran rampant throughout the country; Black Death tells the tale of a young priest, who departs on a journey, with a band of rough and ready mercenaries, to spread the word of God to the masses, and bring both religion, and salvation, to those who not only don’t have it, but may be completely rejecting it.
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne, Powder Blue); the priest; leaps at the chance to leave his monastery; when a knight named Ulric (Sean Bean, The Lord of the Rings) turns up on a mission from the Bishop, and asks for a religious guide to take him to a nearby village; as he wishes to meet up with the woman he loves (a young girl who has fled the town near the monastery to escape the plague) along the way, and enjoys the prospect of adventure along the way.
However Osmund’s impression of the knight soon dips, when he realizes that Ulric wasn’t exactly truthful with him about the mission ahead; learning that it’s sole focus isn’t to spread the word of God, but to capture, and most likely kill, a necromancer whom they believe is not only responsible for turning a previously God fearing village away from the Lord, but able to bring people back from the dead.
Yet even the task of simple getting to the village (which is of particular interest not only because of its ungodly ways, but because of the fact that it’s the only place in England known to be 100% plague free) proves difficult; as the group has to deal with an arduous trek that sees them attacked by a band of thieves, one of their own developing the deadly illness, and crossing the immense and treacherous marshland that surrounds the remote village.
After crossing the marshland (which clearly resembles the Dead Marshes from The Lord of the Rings) and reaching the village, Ulric, Osmund, and the mercenaries, are surprised to find that it appears to be a heavenly utopia; as it’s clean, well tendered, stocked with food, and clearly untouched by the diseases that are ravaging the rest of the country; although they instantly sense that there is something not quite right with the village, and grow suspicious of those who inhabit it.
The film then becomes a sort of Wicker Man-type movie where every viewer is acutely aware that something isn’t quite right with the village, and its strange leader; a powerful woman named Langiva (Carice Van Houten, Valkyrie); and simply waits for it to unravel and come to blows; as Ulric and his men lay in wait for their chance to strike, and Osmund begins to be tempted by the life the village can offer him.
And it’s the waiting, and predictability, that is Black Death’s biggest failing; as it’s blatantly obvious what’s going to happen from the films outset; as the plot is one that audiences have seen time and again (on the big screen, and in countless sci-fi TV shows such as Stargate and Sliders); but doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem, as the movie doesn’t stray too far over the hour-and-a-half mark.
It’s also peppered with some truly brutal action scenes, that don’t shy away from the viscous nature of the medieval warrior, and aren’t afraid to show how dirty and underhanded their fighting styles could quickly become; presenting a starkly different picture to the stereotypical clean and honourable knights that are always pristine, and never raise their swords in anger.
But the single best thing about Black Death, would be it’s amazingly gripping climax; as it features some truly graphic torture scenes, and showcases the lengths that religious zealots will go to in order to not only force their faith on other people, but punish those who refuse to bow to their way of thinking, and endure incredible hardship before renouncing their beliefs; and it’s such a successful sequence because it comes at a point where it seems too early for the heroes to be in such a dire predicament, and manages to provide some surprising deaths, and a shocking twist.
The climax is also the most emotional part of the film; as it’s only really here that the heroes seem to exhibit any sense of true feeling, other than the immensely cliched sense of duty, suspicion, and hatred, they exhibit when entering the village (as even the Platoon style shot of the group seeing a friend befallen with the plague being put down, seems to lack depth), despite having a pretty capable cast.
Sean Bean is the only real noteworthy cast member (and if it weren’t for his inclusion Black Death wouldn’t have earned a status anywhere near as high as it has been awarded), and slots into his role as the devout knight Ulric with ease; neither wooing or disappointing viewers; as he’s played similar parts so many times that acting in this type of role now seems to come as easy as painting by numbers, and doesn’t challenge or push him at all (Ulric certainly isn’t as memorable as Boromir).
And while Eddie Redmayne plays the part of the confused priest Osmund well enough, the character is a little too weak, too whiney, and too underdeveloped, for anyone to really care about; a fundamental failing, considering that the development of Osmund’s character, and his journey, is really the central arc of the movie.
The rest of the cast are fairly average, and not unlike the film itself, don’t really stand out at all (unless you’re a Black Adder fan, and will be pleasantly surprised to see Percy; Tim McInnerny; as the second most powerful member of the village), as there’s no-one that’s truly memorable, or that couldn’t have been replaced easily enough.
In the end Black Death is little more than an average medieval action movie, that fails to fully capitalize on its Wicker Man premise, yet has enough going on, and a short enough runtime, to keep it interesting (even if the last ten minutes or so could have been cut without too much trouble), and some brutal fight scenes, and graphic torture scenes, that make it appealing to fans of the genre, and shocking enough to remain watchable, and enjoyable, throughout.
Not having the highest budget ever, it was reasonable to expect the Black Death Blu-ray release to look little better than average, but fortunately it manages to surpass expectations, with a pretty clear transfer that contains natural looking fleshtones, great colour and contrast levels (where appropriate, as it does contain a fairly muted overall tone), and brilliant texturing.
There’s a thin level of grain remaining on the transfer (that does nothing to hide any detail, and helps give it that real film-like look), and some acceptably deep black levels, that only enhance the relatively error-free print (as there’s little evidence of ringing, crush, or other issues, visible), that’s not quite up to reference standard, but does a solid job of reproducing the movie, and bringing it to Blu-ray.
Unlike the picture however, the lack of a lossless audio track came as a real blow (as Black Death is only offered via a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, or a two channel mix), and lets the film down, despite the track itself being a relatively solid one; that features some crisp dialogue, decent bass, and a little bit of ambient noise where appropriate, and is suitably balanced throughout; making it a perfectly acceptable listen, but one that, like the film, fails to reach its full potential.
Black Death also comes to Blu-ray with a fairly extensive selection of special features that begin with a short bundle of deleted scenes (with optional commentary included); that are all fairly dull, wisely removed, and generally not worth taking the time to watch; a behind the scenes featurette; which contains several praise heavy cast and crew interviews, and is generally standard fare, but certainly worth a look for any fan; and a collection of interviews; that are simply the expanded versions of those included in the featurette.
There’s also a photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and an audio commentary with director Christopher Smith (Severance); that includes a truckload of production information, and talks of how the film changed over time and his process works, and is a good listen for people who are heavily interested in the art of filmmaking, but not one for casual listeners; all combining to create a selection of bonus materials that might not be the most intriguing or original ever, and generally not enticing to the casual viewer, but serves to please its fans well enough.
The Bottom Line:
Black Death has an excellent premise; including medieval battles and sword-fights, witches, religious propaganda, and holy quests, as well as a Wicker Man type second half, that means it could have been truly brilliant; but suffers from poor execution, and ends up being simply an average movie, with some cool, and brutal, sequences, that elevate it above the completely b-movie feel it would otherwise have.
And the Blu-ray overall is helped by solid picture quality that may not be astounding, but is clear, well detailed, and does a good job of showcasing the film, as does the audio; which itself is pretty decent, but can’t hold up to the best high definition formats (as its only presented in Dolby Digital); and the acceptable selection of extras; that are sure to give fans of the film exactly what they want.
Overall, Black Death is certainly a film worth watching, as it’s a decent, if not thoroughly memorable and exciting ride, that’s sure to entertain most viewers, but not make too much of a lasting impression. It’s bound to appeal to fans of historical action movies (but will fare better with fans of films like Centurion, rather than those who only appreciate blockbusters like Gladiator or Robin Hood), and comes to Blu-ray with a very respectable transfer, and range of features, but for casual viewers, a rental is probably in order before blind buying.