The quest for sanctuary in the time of the Bubonic Plague takes viewers on a particularly bleak voyage in Black Death, an oppressive yet compelling period adventure that uses pestilence as a vehicle to detail the bitter clash between faith and sacrilege. Neither as fun as Severance nor as mind-bending as Triangle, this serious-minded descent into the darkness of the human soul finds genre vet Christopher Smith forging boldly into grim territory alongside screenwriter Dario Poloni, whose piercing screenplay gradually coaxes religious conflict to the forefront of the story while never offering viewers an easy way out.
As the Black Death sweeps through Medieval England, young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) sends his girlfriend, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), to the safety of the remote forest while he remains at the monastery to serve God. Shortly thereafter, Ulric (Sean Bean) and his fierce band of Christian crusaders show up seeking a guide to help them locate an isolated village that is said to be untouched by the Black Plague. Convinced that this may be his one opportunity to reunite with Averill and serve a higher power at the same time, Osmund volunteers. Later, as the group departs, Osmund learns that their mission has much darker implications. Rumors persist that within the village is a necromancer with the power to bring the dead back to life; their true goal is to take the sorcerer back to the bishop for confession, trial, and execution. Under the leadership of the deeply reverent Ulric, the group forges ever deeper into the blighted countryside, encountering madness, unrest, and unspeakable suffering along the way. Later, when the seekers finally arrive at their remote destination, they quickly find that the fantastical rumors seem rooted in fact -- not a single one of the villagers shows signs of infection, food remains plentiful, and spirits there are high. When mysterious village matriarch Langiva (Carice van Houten) reveals that survival does not come without sacrifice, however, Osmund realizes that his dark journey has only just begun.
Black Death is one of those rare films that proves a director doesn't necessarily have to lose his edge in order to mature. Largely absent is the gruesome irreverence that gave Smith's early films Creep and Severance a slightly whimsical air, though the climax of Black Death does make a point of forcing viewers to reassess the more fantastical aspects of the story à la Triangle. Nonetheless, screenwriter Poloni's dexterity in contrasting Christianity against paganism through intense character conflict lends this film a graver, more somber tone. Sebastian Edschmid's handheld cinematography offers the film an eerie, dark intimacy as well. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Black Death is the approach that Poloni takes in exploring the clash between two opposing belief systems; by making it difficult to surmise where the screenwriter's sympathies fall, he challenges the viewer to meditate on the way that religion in general is used to control and manipulate, rather than leveling his aim at any one faith in particular. In the end, it's difficult to surmise whether it's the Christians' unbending allegiance to the church or the villagers' unwavering loyalty to Langiva that truly has the most damaging effect -- or even whether everyone was doomed from the very beginning regardless of the faith they had chosen to embrace.
In addition to displaying a knack for the thoughtful handling of challenging subject matter, Poloni manages to effectively keep us involved in the story by creating a wide variety of compelling characters, each of whom is acted to near perfection by an incredibly talented cast. Bean's eyes burn with such intensity that it's clear his bishop's envoy truly believes he is doing the Lord's work -- no matter how dirty the job can get at times. In contrast, emerging actor Redmayne, as the young monk venturing out of the monastery for the first time, displays a curiosity that hints his faith could be compromised despite an early pledge that he will never stray from God's grace. Underappreciated actor John Lynch serves as an effective stand-in for the audience thanks to a subtle, sympathetic approach to his crusading character, while Johnny Harris lends Black Death its rare moments of levity as the one Christian warrior who genuinely seems to relish his work. Screen veteran Tim McInnerny, who previously worked with Smith in Severance, draws the simmering menace of the outwardly genial Hob to the surface in a manner that gives the film's climax an unholy punch, and van Houten imbues Langiva with the seductive air of a diabolically enchanting temptress.
Although it's somewhat difficult to fully embrace such a relentlessly desolate film with such an unapologetically ominous ending, Black Death ultimately transcends the darkness that threatens to overwhelm it thanks to strong storytelling, solid direction, and convincing performances. The more films that Christopher Smith makes, the more apparent it becomes that -- should he not remain one of the horror genre's best-kept secrets -- he may truly emerge as one of his generation's most gifted, versatile filmmakers.