Faith, hope and chainmail: Black Death ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 26, 2011)

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Iron-deficient maiden: Carice van Houten in Black Death

When humans speak for God in terms of rejection or condemnation, we may rest assured that dangerously narrow minds are at work.

Rev. Webster “Kit” Howell

 Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

H.L. Mencken

 Ah, the Dark Ages. A time of pestilence. A time of monarchs and serfs. A time of profound sociopolitical turmoil. And, most notably, a time of widespread ignorance and superstition, where one of the most oft-repeated declarations was “I’m not a witch.” No…I’m not talking about the 2010 midterms-I do mean, the actual Dark Ages.

For nitpicky academic types, I am more pointedly referring to the Late Middle Ages; specifically the Year of Our Lord (if you believe in that sort of thing) 1348, which is right about the time that the first wave of bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe. This is the cheery backdrop for a new film from the UK called Black Death, a dark period piece from up-and-coming horror/thriller director Christopher Smith. Visceral, moody and atmospheric, it plays like a medieval mash-up of Apocalypse Now and The Wicker Man.

The specter of apocalyptic doom hangs over the opening scenes of the film, where we join a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as he ventures out of his dank cloister and into the grim milieu of the surrounding city. Most of the traffic slogging across the cobblestones is composed of horse-drawn carts, piled high with the plague victims whose bodies litter the streets and alleyways. Not surprisingly, Osmund appears focused on whatever his errand is; apart from a perfunctory pit stop to absolve a dying man, he’s making a proverbial beeline for his destination.

When he gets there, we understand the reason for his haste. Her name is Averill (Kimberley Nixon), and she’s the kind of winsome lass who could (if I may paraphrase Raymond Chandler) “make a bishop kick a hole in a stain glass window.” Suffice it to say, Osmund may be breaking a vow or two on the side. After giving his lady love provisions that he’s “borrowed” from the church’s pantry, he urges her to flee quickly from the plague-ridden city and head for an arranged meeting place in a nearby forest, where he promises to join her posthaste.

Meanwhile, back at the monastery, Osmund struggles with his crisis of faith. Torn between devotion to the church and his desire to run off with Averill, he prays fervently for guidance, and for God to give him a Sign. No sooner does “amen” escape his lips, than his prayers get answered (in oblique fashion) by the appearance of a “man of God” of an altogether different stripe. He is a veteran knight named Ulric (Sean Bean, recycling his “Boromir” accoutrements from Middle Earth).

He has come to the monastery as an emissary of the local bishop, with a small yet formidable band of well-armed mercenaries in tow. He seeks a guide who can lead his team to a village that the Church has taken a keen interest in. It appears that they are the only settlement for miles around who have managed to escape the “black death”. As said Church is currently pushing a meme that posits this mysterious scourge as “God’s punishment” for mankind’s sins, this anomaly calls for closer scrutiny.

Obviously, the people of this sleepy and hitherto unsullied hamlet must be embroiled in some form of devilry, because they are simply not suffering as much as people living in the Dark Ages are supposed to be suffering. In fact, it is rumored that the people of the village are beholden to the spells of a resident “necromancer”, who has the power to raise the dead. Ulric’s mission (so he claims) is to sniff out evidence of any such sorcery and report back.

As luck has it, the route to this village runs through the forest where Osmund has promised to hook up with the lovely Averill. Discreetly keeping this part of the equation to himself, Osmund “selflessly” volunteers to act as guide for the mercenaries, much to the chagrin of his superior (David Warner). Reluctantly, the abbot gives Osmund his blessing, but not without first pulling him aside and cautioning him (and the audience) that this Ulric character, while undeniably a pious fellow, is the most “dangerous” kind.

Indeed, not long after the journey commences, Osmund does begin to notice a few things. Like a cartful of nasty-looking torture devices that Ulric’s crew has brought along, which includes a man-sized contraption that looks to be an early prototype of an iron maiden.

Then there’s the fellow with an ill-favored look who (in so many words) introduces himself to Osmund as the resident torturer. It’s becoming obvious that this expedition is more than a scouting mission; these guys are out to get Medieval on someone’s ass. Ulric fesses up. The Bishop wants the “necromancer” located and brought back alive, at which time he or she will be, shall we say, proactively “encouraged” to make a full confession.

After a series of trials and tribulations worthy of any “heart of darkness” excursion, the men finally arrive at the village, which is populated by a curiously happy-go-lucky bunch of folks (considering that this is, after all, a time of great pestilence and misery). There also seems to be a disproportionate number of pale young maidens among the populace.

All the villagers defer to a striking and enigmatic woman named Langiva (Carice van Houten), who warmly welcomes the strangers (despite their furtive demeanor and grungy appearance) and offers to put on a feast for them that evening. Ulric, while intuitively suspicious, is encouraged by the docile and unsuspecting behavior of the villagers and figures that this is going to be a cakewalk. Then again, appearances can be deceiving.

I liked this film; it’s a throwback to the halcyon days of those stylized Hammer Studios productions, with their foggy marshes, mist-shrouded villages and atmosphere of dread. The performances, particularly by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten, are solid and convincing.

Screenwriter Dario Poloni has some fun blurring the line between Christian dogma and the tenets of paganism, demonstrating that charlatanism and sleight of hand are no strangers to either camp. And perhaps he’s borrowing a page from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with this message: whether one places their faith and hope into the graces of an omnipotent super-being or a bundle of twigs, it is very likely that it is the most simplest of single-celled organisms, the lowly bacteria, that wields the greatest power of them all.

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