Tuesday, October 11, 2011

“We journey to Hell, but God travels with us.”

Conceptually, 2010’s Black Death is something that should appeal to me. It’s set in the Medieval period and stars Sean Bean. And when it very quickly disappeared to video, I was curious why it didn’t do better than it did. I am no longer curious.

It’s 1348 and the narrator informs us that the Black Plague is EVERYWHERE. Some see it as a punishment from God, while others see the plague as the work of witchcraft and seek to hunt it down. Our protagonist is a monk who volunteers to accompany a heavily armed Bishop’s envoy to a village untouched by the plague and where the people are said to be led by a witch. They head out there and things go badly, with most of the characters dying, ironically not from the plague.

Osmund: Eddie Redmayne is our protagonist. He’s released from quarantine after not showing any symptoms of disease. He’s not a very good monk, since he’s got a girlfriend on the outside with whom he’s broken his vows of chastity, and he urges her to seek shelter away from the village and will meet her in the woods. This is precisely the reason why he volunteers to go with the warriors. Osmund is both something of an idealist and a giant weenie. Being a monk, he’s not a good adventurer, but he’s not good at being a monk either. He gets into some difficult moral quandaries.

Ulrich: Sean Bean is our badass and pretty much the only likable character. He’s a cynical realist with an unshakable faith. Along the way he interferes in a peasant witch trial by shanking the woman suspected of witchcraft to give her a quicker, more merciful death than the peasants would have. He gets real pissed at Osmund when the monk wanders off to look for his girlfriend and ends up drawing back a bunch of bandits/goons and in the ensuing fight one of Ulrich’s men is killed. Ulrich tears him a new one for going off on his own and for being a little bitch.

Ulrich’s crew: The fighters in his little band are all rough-and-tumble guys who aren’t nice people. That’s pretty much the extent of their characterization, as I don’t even remember any of their names. The one that stands out from the rest is Bearded Veteran (because that’s what he is) because he shows some personality.

The Abbot: Hey, its David Warner! David Warner is always a good thing, even if he’s only at the beginning and end of the movie.

Langiva: Carice van Houten is our villain (OR IS SHE?!) She’s pretty much in charge of the little village our protagonists travel to. She’s pretty obviously the witch they’re looking for (OR IS SHE?!) and is very keen on spilling Christian blood to keep that Christian disease out of her village. The thing is, she’s a colossal liar and a smug bitch and starts needling the weak link of the group, Osmund by bringing back to life his dead girlfriend (OR IS SHE?!)

Directed by Christopher Smith, the movie is clearly working with a lower budget judging from the small cast and with most of the action taking place in fields and forests. What few fights exist are nicely done, as are the few special effects. However, the movie is plagued by the vile demon that is Shaky Cam. If there is any devil’s work truly at play, it is whoever decided to use Shaky Cam for a Medieval movie. God I hate that.

The screenplay by Dario Poloni is…problematic. On the one hand it sets an appropriately grim and dark mood for the proceedings. So grim and dark that it would almost work better in the Warhammer 40K universe. On the other hand, by the end of the movie, its clear that while the villagers may be pagan, the reason the plague hasn’t touched them is because it hasn’t actually touched them. As in, it was just isolated from it. That’s one thing, but compounding it is the fact that Langiva and her henchman Hobb come out as atheists turns the movie into yet another question of "Christianity vs. Atheism and isn’t religion so very brutal, superstitious, and unenlightened?"

Yes, I get it, it asks the viewer to challenge and examine dogma under the lens of what it does in extreme conditions, but you know what? Its been done to fucking death. Just about every major medieval movie of the last twenty years has asked or implied that question (Ridley Scott did it twice), while other time periods like Ancient Rome (again, Ridley Scott) get a pass. What is it about the Middle Ages that brings this out? Was it Gibbon’s history? Is it a general anticlerical sentiment? Is it the Crusades? Because if religious atrocity is the subject of scrutiny, I can assure the Middle Ages had no monopoly on that. Hell, the age of the Reformation and the 30 Years’ War is full of inhuman behavior (and witch hunting was far more popular then than in the Middle Ages), why aren’t there more movies about that? Or rather, why are all of those elements squashed into a single time period? As a medievalist I am genuinely curious about this as much as I’m disappointed by this pigeonholing.

Original music by Christian Henson, and the music is largely forgettable. It’s been a few weeks and I can’t remember any of it.

I was hopeful for Black Death. I liked the premise. Did I want to see a group of warriors hunting down an evil cult while a witch tried to ensorcel them with evil magic? HELL YES I DID. If the movie would have stuck with that premise instead of backpedaling on the witchcraft, I probably would have been able to forgive even the sin of Shaky Cam. But NO. The twist flings the movie into the pile of generic postmodern medieval stereotyping AND features Shaky Cam.

But Sean Bean and David Warner were good, so there’s that at least.

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