Review: 'Black Death' Plagued By One Major Casting Issue

by Gabe Toro
March 9, 2011 3:01 AM
11 Comments
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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+]

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11 Comments

  • Trevor | October 3, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    Having just watched this movie and then reading this review i have to ask, did you even watch the movie, or pay even slight attention? Your explanation of the plot is completely misguided,leaving out key major plot advances. Your attack on the actors and actresses is completely unfounded. All of these leads have been nominated or won awards for their acting. You also don't seem to have a firm grasp on the Christian religion, specifically how God can be both merciful and vengeful. This is an awful and highly biased review. Poor attempt, maybe next time watch the movie first.

  • Nerak | March 18, 2011 1:01 AMReply

    Eddie is a fabulous actor. He is the epitome of the "fresh faced boy" we all love. His time has come and he will make an incredible breakthrough soon.

  • Kate | March 12, 2011 10:11 AMReply

    What's wrong with the way Eddie Redmayne looks? His chin is fine...so fine that he's done quite a bit of modeling alongside his acting. He's also won a Tony award, and plenty of accolades for his acting. I thought he was great in this. The only thing that sucked about Black Death was the plot and dialogue. I'm impressed that the actors made the script watchable.

  • ink | March 9, 2011 11:35 AMReply

    I haven't seen Black Death but personally I believe Eddie to be an incredibly versatile actor with a fascinating, and beautiful, face - weak-chinned is a slightly weak analysis of his acting skills..

  • jen | March 9, 2011 7:18 AMReply

    dude won a tony, i'd say some people would call him an actor

  • mijo | March 9, 2011 6:37 AMReply

    Was hoping this was gonna be good because ive like all Smiths movies so far.

  • melonman | March 9, 2011 5:19 AMReply

    He's not a bad actor but… he was one of the heroes of the pretty dire "Pillars of the Earth" series - I've never wanted the villains to succeed so much - same as in "Tess" on TV - there is something very irritating about him

  • taptup | March 9, 2011 3:54 AMReply

    That's harsh... but I agree. He almost ruined The Good Shepherd for me. He's not ugly, but he's weirdly difficult to look at for a whole movie.

  • Miriam Smith | March 9, 2011 3:48 AMReply

    Eddie is the best actor ever! Obviously you know anything.

  • Caspar | March 9, 2011 3:44 AMReply

    SO harsh! Why so much anger towards him? Eddie Redmayne is a very talented actor, who may be miscast in this, I don't know - but he certainly doesn't deserve this much ire.

  • puck | March 9, 2011 3:29 AMReply

    That's so harsh. He can't help the way his face looks. Are you pushing him towards plastic surgery?

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