The Way of the Word

17. July 2010

Review: Black Death

Filed under: Fiction,movies,review — jensaltmann @ 09:00
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Germany/UK 2010. Directed by Christopher Smith. Starring Sean Bean, Carice van Houten, Eddie Redmayne. Runtime 102 minutes

It is the year 1348. Europe suffers under the black death, the bubonic plague. All of Europe? No, a remote, tiny village in England seems to be immune. Surely, this has to be evil sorcery, the Devil’s work. Therefore, the bishop sends out the knight Ulric (Sean Bean) to investigate. The young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) serves as a guide to Ulric’s group — for his own reasons. They reach the village, where everyone is friendly and healthy. But as suspected, the village harbors a deadly secret, at the core of which is the mysterious Langiva (Carice van Houten).

Black Death is, so far, the most intelligent movie I’ve seen all year. Not the best, not the most fun, but the most intelligent. It feels authentic in its presentation of life in the Middle Ages. The characters feel real. They are nuanced, balanced and, even though it’s difficult to remember their names, individuals. The story does not take a time out to explain that THIS IS WHAT LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES WAS LIKE. Instead, it shows instead of telling. That makes it chillingly effective.

Christopher Smith’s previous credits include the humorous slasher Severance and the horror movie Creep. Black Death utilizes elements from both genres to tell its story. Ulric’s group gets killed off one after another, almost according to the slasher movie rules. (Actually, if you know to apply those rules, the order of the deaths becomes somewhat predictable.) There are nods to zombie movies and even to Revenge of the Sith. And throughout, you wonder just what kind of movie you’re actually watching.

The cast manage to disappear into their roles. Sean Bean is halfway back into Boromir territory. Carice van Houten play her role in a very natural and convincing way, and is definitely the absolute highlight of the movie. The one who suffers from that is Eddie Redmayne, who plays Osmund — it is particularly the scenes he shares with van Houten that emphasize just how stiff his acting is.

Black Death’s greatest problem is the cinematography. Smith employs various artful camera and editing techniques to emphasize certain aspects, such as the Osmund’s confusion, or the chaos of a battle. Unfortunately, those techniques had the effect of pulling me out of the story by drawing attention to themselves. Blurry pictures and strange cuts don’t work to enhance a story. They only scream, “Look at me, I’m art!” and serve to irritate the viewer. (I wasn’t the only one in the audience who felt that way.)

As mentioned before, Black Death is easily the most intelligent movie I’ve seen this year. (At least so far, I haven’t seen Inception yet.) It’s also a very dark and depressing movie.

Verdict: recommended.

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