As far as movies featuring giant underarm pustules go, this one is pretty good. I can’t recommend watching while eating lunch, or anywhere near your next planned meal. Nor would I say go out and rent this one for your next romantic evening. However, if you’re in the mood for some good ole hack-n-slash bathed in the light of Dark Age Christianity, well then, you’re in luck.
The year is 1348 and the first wave of the Black Death, AKA the Bubonic Plague, has swept across the Western world. Rome’s majesty is a distant memory and the Renaissance is centuries away. In their place is a dreary, disease-filled world where normal folks burn witches, iron-maiden necromancers, and -- when things are slower -- look for a convenient toe to pinch off with a pair of crude pliers.
Sean Bean stars in the same role he’s been perfecting since he tried to take the One Ring from Frodo. This time he’s got Jesus on his side. Not baby Jesus, or your grandmother’s Jesus, but the gaunt and bloody Jesus hanging from a Roman cross. The Jesus that doesn’t believe in the Easter Bunny, and thinks Santa is a fat man with frost-bite. But the Beanster loves Him, and wants nothing more in life than to stick a sword in someone and call it holy.
The old-school battles in this film are on the small scale, a couple dozen guys duking it out in the woods. As opposed to say, the opening battle in Gladiator, or the same Romans vs. Celts in Centurion. But where they lack in numbers, the battles make up for in realistic --sort of-- gore. The Black Death is all about Englishman on Englishman violence, or Englishman on Englishwoman violence. There’s no sex to speak of, but plenty of wading through swamps, and tying chicks to bonfire kindling, which seems to be about as good as a burly man of God could expect back then.
There are hints of magic, but more of the herb and poultice variety. All the talk of demons and necromancers is really more of an allusion to the ignorance and fear of the day. This is a good thing though, as the mood and the grit of plague stricken England is plenty to carry the film.
Eddie Redmayne also stars as a Name of the Rose style monk, hopelessly sinning every chance he can get with some strumpet from the Monastery. At least this is what we assume, on camera we see a few hugs, but none of the good stuff that must be going on sometime between vespers and lauds (you know, at night). But all that’s left to our imagination. We do get to see him stick her with something, but it’s not what you think.
The rest of the witch-hunters are a well-chosen bunch of charismatic English-looking dudes. John Lynch, whom you’ll remember from -- uh never mind, you won’t remember him from anything -- convincingly sports a Prince Valiant do, and steals most shots he’s in - his sad puppy dog eyes helping considerably. He’s also our film’s narrator, which I didn’t figure out till the end. David Warner plays the Abbot, whom I prefer to remember as Satan from Time Bandits. Carice van Houten, a German actress, performs well as the godless villainess. Performances and production values are high throughout, and Dark Age England is convincingly portrayed by the German countryside where it was filmed.
I found the film perversely cheerful in light of our current political turmoil in Washington. Because hey, Grandma might not get her social security check on time, but at least she’s not covered in giant bleeding pustules.
So yeah, Black Death is a solid 3 Bobber, with the caveat that you might not like it if you’re a pussy, or if you have one.