Black Death (Christopher Smith, 2010)
Christopher Smith, over the years, has gotten very, very good at one particular thing: taking ideas that were played out years ago and remaking them with clever, funny twists to come up with surprisingly watchable movies. The best thing about such a specialization is that it’s highly portable; you can apply it to pretty much any genre and come up with a winner. Here, he tackles the historical-drama-with-a-subgenre-of-Inquisition, which has been played out approximately since Cecil B. DeMille was a pup, and once again comes up with something quite nice. It does lack the humor of Smith’s earlier films, but I’ve gotta say, I was okay with that. (And I did not expect to be.)
If you need any further convincing, well, have a look at the cast list. The abbot (David Warner. I mean, DAVID WARNER.) of a German monastery hires a band of mercenaries headed up by the amoral, violent Ulrich (Sean Bean… the list of people here who will need no introduction is just gonna keep going, folks) to investigate a town located in the center of a nearby swamp that seems to be immune from the Black Plague. Ulrich, who doesn’t really believe in divine providence and Satanic protection from disease and all that sort of thing, opines that, perhaps, marsh gas is providing a natural air filter that keeps out the bug, but the abbot is having none of that. A young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), offers to guide the band through the swamp, partially to get out and get some experience on the road, but partially because his betrothed, Averill (Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging‘s Kimberley Nixon), has fled the city because of the plague and is currently hiding in the village where the party is bound…or so he hopes, having had no word from her. Once they get there, and the trip is fraught with all sorts of dangers, they find the wild animals and bandits in the woods are nothing compared to Langiva (Carice van Houten—and she was cast only after both Famke Janssen and Lena Headey had to drop out because of scheduling conflicts!), the suspected witch trafficking with the devil to keep the plague out of the village, who happens to be mind-meltingly hot, and pretty durned good with herbs besides (as soon as the group gets into town, she takes Osmund, wounded in the side during a battle, and fixes him up but good with poultices and bandages). While the main plot plays out about the way you’d expect it to, we get a very interesting subplot here: is Osmund going to hold fast to Mother Church, or will Langiva’s kindness and good deeds usher in Osmund’s own personal Age of Reason?
Oh, and did I mention that Ulrich’s band of merry men contains Emun Elliott (Prometheus), Johnny Harris (Atonement), Smith regular Andy Nyman (The Brothers Bloom), Tygo Gernant (Godforsaken), and John Lynch (In the Name of the Father)? This movie is not hurting for starpower one bit—that’s one of the little bits of magic that Christopher Smith regularly brings to his movies—and talent will out just as much as truth will. You could put a merely competent director in a movie with this much talent in it at the helm and it would be worth watching; someone like Smith can take this crew and guarantee you a good time. It’s ugly, it’s angry, it’s compelling and somehow surprisingly tender. If you’ve not yet discovered Christopher Smith, this is as good a place as any to begin. *** ½