It’s hard to find a good medieval/fantasy action flick. Sure, previous years have been fairly kind. Not only did the 2000s bring us a well developed, quality film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but this last year brought us A Game of Thrones which seems to be universally acclaimed as one of the best shows on television and all around brilliant adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice books. Hell, on August 19th we’re getting a new Conan the Barbarian!
It’s something of an appreciated reprieve. If there is one thing I love, it’s some honest-to-goodness medieval action. Finding such in a quality movie however can be a bit of a trial, namely because the Hollywood studios just seems to have a hard time making films in a medieval setting, not for lack of trying. King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, Robin Hood; these are at best examples of how to make a mediocre film. Occasionally however, you come across a gem that gets it right.
Thank you Netflix for recommending Black Death, I am forever in your debt.
Black Death, written by Dario Poloni and directed by Christopher Smith and as the titles suggests, takes place during the worst pestilence to ever ravage the world. Rather than focusing in on the bubonic plague itself however, it uses it as a backdrop to explore the moral ambiguity that often defines the conflict between men and between differing faiths.
Following a group of Christian warriors investigating a village supposedly infested with paganism, the film does a brilliant job of demonstrating the various shades of gray that paint the human experience. On the one hand you have Ulrich (Sean Bean), a Christian soldier brutal in his belief. He isn’t a cruel man, but he is unflinchingly devout and has a violent intolerance for affronts to God. When one character points out to him that the Pagan village is thriving and free of the plague his response is one of absolute resolution.
“This village may be without plague but they are also without God. For that they will suffer.”
“His religious fervor is matched only by the zealous hatred the Pagans have for the Christian soldiers. When things finally go awry at the films end (I think I can say that without spoiling the story), the Pagans show off that they are just capable of violence as their Christian foes. What keeps them from the devolving into simple movie villains however is the fact that the Christians kind of have it coming. The Pagan’s strike first, but they do so in response to past experiences.
What happened to your husband?” asks one character of the Langiva, (Carice van Houten) the leader of the Pagans.
“He was killed by men like you.” She replies. “By men of God.”
The film never explicitly sides with the Pagan’s but it gives ample evidence that if they hadn’t acted first, Ulrich would have.
While the film is setting up these dueling sides, it’s constantly asking itself and the audience to determine a bad guy. A question it intentionally never answers. Things end badly, but they end badly for everyone in large part because both sides are corrupted by their own presumptions, prejudice and hate.
The actors in turn deliver performances that are good across the board. The main players are brilliantly acted. Sean Bean as Urlich, emits a natural gravitas of dedication that steals most every scene he’s in. Carice van Houten in turn is the perfect counterpoint, playing Langiva as a calculated and charismatic leader coldly seeking her vengeance against the injustices of the church. Standing between them is Eddie Redmayne as Osmund, a Christian monk suffering a crisis of faith that gives something of a personal touch to the overarching conflict of the film. The secondary characters in turn are distinct and well-acted, each adding additional substance to a tight script that is both poignant and organic to the ear.
On a technical level Black Death is similarly successful. The film makes excellent use of the German countryside in which it was shot. This isn’t Middle-Earth, broken into lands of either idyllic beauty or putrid decay. Black Death takes place in a land full of life but still desolate. It’s a world of mist and mystery that seems barely tolerant of the people living in it. While never falling into the cheap scares that plague many horror productions, Black Death is nonetheless tempered by a feeling of constant suspense. This is a dangerous world where anything might be waiting for you around the next bend.
Similar praise must be offered to the film’s action. I’ll preface this by saying that I am not a fan of exorbitant CGI. The biggest flaw, in my opinion, with The Lord of the Rings films is their reliance on CGI. While exciting at the time, they inevitability age and even a few years later I’m not as impressed by them as I was in 2005. Comparatively, the smaller battle sequences of Braveheart, The Last Samurai, or even The Fellowship of the Ring itself just feel more visceral and authentic. Black Death isn’t a film heavy in action, but the one extended sequence it does have is one of the better ones I’ve watched in recent years. It’s on a small scale, involving no more than a few dozen combatants and the choreography is fairly simple, but the realism that accompanies living, breathing people smacking each other around is far more exciting to me than any hundreds of thousands of computer generated warriors duking it out.
Black Death isn’t the end all be all of films in a medieval setting, but it is one of the better entries to pass under the radar in recent years. How it manages to be this is simply a matter of the filmmakers understanding the setting, working with it well, and using the elements unique to the medieval experience to tell a compelling story that will leave you questioning it long after the credits roll.