Monday, March 7, 2011

Christopher Smith's BLACK DEATH, after a time, begins to seem like the thing itself

Perhaps the visuals for BLACK DEATH (the poster at left, for instance) started me down the wrong track. Looking like a medieval-set, sword-and-sorcery action film on the order of, say, Centurion, instead it's a kind of plague-ridden road movie in which the characters-- a group of hirsute but hunky "knights" of the Catholic Church, along with their the young novitiate who has offered to "lead" them -- discover that everything is only going to get worse.

Written by Dario Poloni and directed by Christopher Smith (shown at right, who gave us the very clever Severance a few years back), the movie certainly offers a bleak and believable view of its time period (a very specific 1348) with a dank and unhealthy "look" that's as right as the sodden rain that occasionally falls. Praise must be given here to the lesser lights who concocted such an ugly, honest panorama: John Frankish (production design), Jens Löckmann (art direction), Sarah Horton (set decoration),  Petra Wellen-stein (costume design) and the cinematography (by Sebastian Edschmid) that shows all this to excellent advantage.

The film certainly begins well enough (there's almost no humor, not even the sly sort that distinguished Severance) as we're introduced to an era ruled by the Black Plague (hence the film's title) and to the monastery (above) where one of our "heroes" (the pert Eddie Redmayne, below) resides. Involved with a young woman -- a no-no, Church-wise, even back in 1348 -- he must find a means to leave the monastery without giving the game away.

And so when the knights show up, claiming they've been directed by the church to ferret out a nearby community into which the Plague has not managed to come, and where necro-mancy and perhaps "raising the dead" is being practiced, young Redmayne offers to lead them there. Bye-bye monastery, hello horrors. The road trip offers the occasional odd sight, such as one seen in a river below, and one good fight scene, during which we get some of that action we crave.

One of the film's most interesting scenes comes as our little band encounters some errant townspeople about to burn a woman they claim is a witch, below. What happens here -- and why -- seems particularly smart, real and unsettling.

It's when the knights (their leader is played by Sean Bean, center left, above) arrive at that village in question that the movie begins to dawdle and then falls apart. Something is afoot, all right, but exactly what and why takes far too long to unveil -- and then comes as a bit of a shrug, since we're treated to a drawn-out, after-the-fact exposition involving a too-modern viewpoint on every thing from religion and morality to the sheep-like nature of human-ity. The point is made, but with an expository sledge hammer.

Carice Van Houten (above, of Black Book) plays one of the village's "leaders," providing a little looks-and-lust routine for our boys, and we finally, sort-of, get to see the torture chamber devised for that necromancer put to use (but in a far less ghastly fashion than we might have expected). Overall, the film -- which is always a pleasure to view -- runs downhill until it finally, quietly sputters away the last of its life.

From Magnet, a division of Magnolia Pictures, Black Death open this Friday, March 11, in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. You can find complete playdates, with cities and theaters, listed here.

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