Going into Black Death, I didn’t have very high hopes. With no big name stars leading the cast, and a medieval times based plot, my expectations weren’t particularly high. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t all that bad. It likely won’t garner much box office success, and you probably won’t be talking about it for too long after you see it, but for a one time watch, it’s somewhat satisfying and kind of enjoyable.
The film takes place in 1348 and medieval England is currently dealing with the Bubonic Plague. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk, is tasked with leading a group of knights to a remote village where it is believed that a necromancer is resurrecting the dead and is keeping the village safe from the plague. The knights, led by Ulrich (Sean Bean), travel with Osmund to the village in search of the necromancer. As they draw closer to the village, they start to realize the truth and they face a horror none of them could have ever imagined.
What immediately works for the film is that sense of an ominous foreboding atmosphere that director Christopher Smith creates. It creates a gripping tension that holds your attention for the majority of the film. Solid production values including well done costumes and sets, and some great cinematography, enhance the mood and atmosphere, pulling you further into the film. At times, Black Death almost succeeds on all fronts.
Unfortunately, there are major problems that simply can’t be ignored. Pacing issues plague the first half and the characters are under-developed, resulting in the lack of a strong protagonist. The acting is good enough, especially from the watchable Sean Bean who plays the part that he seems all too familiar with. But without good character development, the characters here seem nothing more than cardboard shells inhabited by the mostly unrecognizable actors that play them.
Redmayne’s character is also especially hard to buy into. It’s not his acting so much that causes this but it’s more the writing that makes his struggle seem perfunctory, which effectively takes away from the emotional pull of the film. Also, the film is never scary. The trailers make it look genuinely creepy but it never really is. There’s a creepy atmosphere and a sense of unease surrounding it but there are never any real scares.
Smith has undoubtedly evolved as a director and shows promise with films like Triangle and Severance but Black Death seems like almost a step backwards at some points. The religious overtones come off as heavy handed and overbearing and at times it can even feel pretentious. The film could almost be seen as one long theological debate and to people who don’t believe in religion, like myself, it really serves to annoy rather than fascinate.
To Smith’s credit, he does work well with the budget allotted here but the film just seems to be missing something. While it’s easy to be interested, it’s not easy to feel compelled or invested, due to the lack of character development. A couple murky sections in the plot don’t help things either. The problem is, there’s not enough action to make it a thriller and not enough scares to make it a horror film. It’s stuck in an undesirable middle ground and ends up using its unsubstantiated religious debate to hold it up.
I’m not ready to write off Smith just yet. I quite liked Severance and was entertained by Triangle, but with Black Death, he seems to be missing a few pieces. The film has potential, it’s just not fully realized. Perhaps in the hands of a more experienced director it could have been great, but as it stands Black Death is only decent. Is it worth a watch? Ya, I’d say so, but don’t expect it to stick with you long after. Black Death is a somewhat entertaining yet ultimately forgettable film.