Films often live or die with their lead performances. In many movies, lead characters are stoic or passive, and in anchoring the film, people ignore the work lead actors put in over the course of the runtime, grounding the story with a consistency that allows showier supporting actors a chance to stretch. If we were judging “Black Death” on this criteria, then it would be a failure.
“Black Death” concerns a novice priest in the dark ages who must ride into the infected areas of Europe during the Black Plague, a quest he undertakes to see the woman he loves, though he claims it is for reasons related to the collar. He is matched with a squad of knights, whom he soon learns are there to spread death to those they claim are responsible for the plague due to godlessness. Hm, could conflict arise?
The group heads into foreign territory and decamps in a small village, unaware that these suspiciously welcoming people are religion-despising anarchists, bound to destruction and witchcraft, the very same they had hoped to eradicate. Of course, if you live in Witch Village, you keep that Wiccan stuff on lockdown, but not without a plan to dismantle your violent intruders.
“Black Death” tries to play both angles, and for awhile it’s a bit intriguing. Both the priest and his holy roller warriors seem to have conflicting views on a vengeful or forgiving God, and there is more than a suggestion that this group of grunts has spilled its share of innocent blood with no repercussions. Once they arrive in this village of, we are to gather, spilled ale and loose women, the attitude doesn’t seem particularly hedonistic or “godless,” but rather contemporary. When the head witch (well-cast goddess Carice Van Houten) rolls her eyes at the knight’s lengthy pre-meal prayer, it feels less like cultural pushback of what we imagine the medieval era was like, and more like the exasperation of a burdened customer at a local soup kitchen.
Director Christopher Smith structure the film in a way that obscures his intentions. We spend enough time with the knights to be repulsed, and then gain familiarity with their hunger for death. When they boast of killing suspected witches, it breeds discomfort, but when they repel an attack and mourn over a fallen comrade, it is a way to curry favor with the audience. And when we see them deceived and tortured like dogs by the witch community, it gives us pause, because we know these characters enough to not want them dead. But at the same time, had they even mildly suspected they were entering Witch Village, would they not have done the same?
And then there’s that lead performance. The priest is played by sour-faced Eddie Redmayne, a young thespian who’s gained traction in the industry by looking like a Muppet. Redmayne is appropriately boyish and fresh-faced for the role, but his cartoonishly weak-chinned frame and constant apple-cheeked frown make his priest seem, at best, irritatingly unlikable, and at worst, someone we actively want to see fail. At one point, he beats himself up because of a mistake he may have made, and because of the fatal consequences, we want to beat him up as well. His one natural facial expression is meant to substitute for the same actual reaction to his surroundings, and, frankly, it’s tiring to look at. He’s not an actor, he’s an endurance test.
As one of the knights, Sean Bean provides the film with a dollop of star power, but his principled religiosity and demeanor give him only one note to hit. He hits it capably, as you’d expect from a pro like Bean, but you don’t hire an orchestra to play kid’s music, and you don’t bring in Sean Bean if all he does is brood and posture.
As such, the film relies on the grisly impact of gruesome battle scenes to tide the viewer over once the theological implications are superficially explored. It’s not much, but at points “Black Death” does come alive, arriving at an ending that is unpredictably dark and disquieting, making a wholly obvious but still appropriate point about religion in our modern society. It ain’t eloquent, but it’ll do. [C+]