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Friday, May 20, 2011

BLACK DEATH -- DVD review by porfle

One of the most frightening periods ever--medieval Europe's Black Plague--is given a workout in BLACK DEATH (2010), a dark tale of the Dark Ages with plenty of oppressive atmosphere and grimy period detail.

With half of Europe's population dying off from what is widely perceived as a punishment from God, the church's attention is drawn to a remote village that seems untouched by the plague.  The knight Ulric (Sean Bean) and his men are dispatched by the Bishop to find out why, and to preempt any rumors of a secular salvation from the pestilence.  On their way, they pick up a young monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) who knows the way and was already planning to flee the monastery in order to meet up with his childhood love Averill (Kimberly Nixon).

Early on, we see horrors that are the grim flipside of similar scenes done for laughs in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, as people "bring out their dead" to be carted away and a suspected witch is lashed to a stake to be burned by a frenzied mob.  Then we follow Ulric's group as they trudge downriver to the mysterious village, encountering some self-flagellating, cross-bearing refugees and a band of forest outlaws who engage them in a grungy, gory battle to the death.  Director Christopher Smith gets the look and feel of this stuff just right, as everything we see seems to have a veneer of filth and despair.

Osmund finds himself amongst a group of Christian soldiers who are hardened by killing.  Some of them, like Ulric and his stalwart lieutenant Wolfstan (John Lynch), suffer deep moral conflicts that mirror Osmund's own spiritual uncertainty.  Knowing that these guys are about to go up against an unknown evil that will test their wavering faith in God doesn't bode well for the outcome. 

Reaching the village, they discover it to be a seemingly idyllic plague-free zone presided over by a beautiful blonde woman named Langiva (Carice van Houten) and a large, vaguely friendly man (Tim McInnerny) whose name, "Hob", should set off a warning bell or two.  This is when the suspenseful slow burn of this leisurely-paced film starts to pay off, as the horrible secret of the village is revealed and our heroes face agonizing death. 

Ulric and the rest are severely tested as they are given the choice to deny God or die.  This begins a harrowing sequence which involves a number of nasty demises including hanging and being pulled apart by horses.  The most wrenching decision is faced by Osmund when his love for Averill is used against him in diabolical fashion, setting the stage for a downbeat ending that won't exactly have viewers whistling a happy tune during the closing credits.

Director Smith renders all this in an earthy, matter-of-fact style with lots of handheld camera and very little flash.  The cast play their roles with conviction, with Sean Bean his usual lovable self and Eddie Redmayne doing a good job portraying a young monk in the middle of a spiritual crisis he's hardly ready to endure.  As Langiva, Carice van Houten embodies the silkily seductive evil that holds the village in its grip.  Old fave David Warner shows up in a few brief scenes as the abbott of Osmund's monastery. 

The DVD from Magnolia's Magnet label is in 2.40:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and Spanish subtitles.  A "making of" featurette and cast and crew interviews consist mainly of everyone gushing about how wonderful everyone else is.  Also included are some deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, an HDNet short, a trailer, and an authorization code for obtaining a digital copy of the film.

While I didn't find BLACK DEATH particularly stunning or emotionally effecting, it is a worthy and well-made Gothic horror tale that kept me involved right up to the bleak ending.  Best of all, it gives Sean Bean a chance to be Sean Bean, and that alone makes it worth checking out.

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