Original Title: Black Death
Country: Germany, United Kingdom
Director: Christopher Smith
Genre: Action, Adventure
13.03.2020: This review was first published on 29.08.2018 and is being updated for a more complete review, together with the publishing of the YouTube Version.
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Black Death is a German-British production directed by Christopher Smith. A group of mercenaries searches for a village rumored to be home to a Necromancer. They believe he or she might be the reason for the epidemic of bubonic plague decimating their people.
What is a Necromancer?
So, what is a Necromancer?
Let’s use the dictionary first. For the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Necromancy is the conjuration of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events.
The Online Etymology Dictionary defines the same term as divination by communication with the dead, basically the same thing as the Merriam-Webster, but in different words.
As for the origin of the term, the Online Etymology Dictionary explains that it comes from the Greek word “nekromanteia”, “Nekro” meaning “dead body”, and “Manteia” meaning “divination”.
And obviously, a Necromancer is a practitioner of Necromancy. That is someone who communicates with the dead intending to predict or foresee the future, not much different than a spirit medium in some modern religions.
The necromancy we see in Black Death is quite different from these definitions. The film presents a fantasy view of it, similar to the one of popular culture, like video-games and comic books, as a type of witchcraft to raise the dead.
In the movie, there is also the work with various herbs, mainly used as medicine. But, as far as I know, there is no connection between necromancy and the work with herbs, something that is used in religions and even science today.
Black Death Movie Review
During the outbreak of bubonic plague in England, in 1348, a young monk called Osmund (played by Eddie Redmayne), is divided between his religious vows and the girl he loves, Averill (played by Kimberley Nixon).
Ulrich (played by Sean Bean) a knight, leading a group of mercenaries, arrives at the monastery, looking for someone who can guide him to a remote village. Thinking it’s a sign from God, Osmund offers his services to them.
Their goal is to find and kill a Necromancer, living in a village untouched by the plague. Supposedly, that’s evidence that the Necromancer is the perpetrator of the plague, and also the one who’s protecting the village.
The story is interesting but very familiar. It’s a mix of The Seventh Seal and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man from 1973, even including some very similar scenes from the mentioned movies.
Despite that, Black Death is quite different thematically, with a focus on Christianity. Beginning with the protagonist, Osmund, and his struggle deciding to commit to priesthood or Averill, but the dilemma regarding religion permeates the whole movie. More about that later.
The cast is the strongest point of the movie, which includes the Oscar-Winning actor Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, and of course, Carice van Houten as Langiva, the alleged Necromancer. Every single one gives an optimal performance, as usual.
A name I want to highlight is John Lynch as Wolfstan. I knew the Northern Irish actor from the series The Fall, and he did an excellent job in Black Death as well. He provides one of the best scenes of the movie, telling a story about when he was at war in France, there is no flashback shot, only the people around the fire while he speaks.
The scene is a marvelous example of how the telling of a story might be more effective than a flashback. The same happens in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona from 1966, and it’s also the whole premise of Richard Schenkman’s The Man from Earth from 2007.
I think he gave my favorite performance in the movie and also one of my favorite characters. He was the one who best conveyed emotion, a rough man who saw a lot, but still capable of showing empathy.
My favorite character was Carice van Houten’s Langiva, the Necromancer. A strong woman, a leader of the village with a back story that makes you understand her to some point. But there were some questionable decisions to her character that I’ll mention later.
The film is very visually gruesome, it might bother sensitive people, but I see it as an element to add realism to the movie. The best example I can think of is Hacksaw Ridge, with some very graphic scenes portraying a war zone full of death.
It’s the same with Black Death. In a movie set in medieval times and during the plague outbreak, we see corpses piling up and other medieval things, like torture and war. By the way, the effects that make the gore is flawless, as far as I remember.
As most of the production, the wardrobe is also of high quality. I mean, there’s not much to do about the monks’ clothes, but the rest, like the armors, is pretty decent. The costumes of the people in the remote village are soft and light, the opposite every other character.
The cinematography is another pretty element of the movie. In this gritty environment full of death, they were able to show many compelling shots, making outstanding use of light and darkness.
The last thing I’ll praise is the music. Since the very beginning, we can hear that the film will feature an eerie soundtrack, with religious chants and a downbeat tone. It’s perfect for the movie.
However, the movie is not all good, and the thing I hate the most is the shaky camera work. I hate it, it’s too noticeable, and it bothers me a lot. Shaky camera work rarely works well, but many filmmakers still insist on it.
Andy Nyman, the actor who portrays Dalywag, and a horror filmmaker we’ll talk about in the future, apparently agrees with me about shaky camera work. His only personal quote on IMDb is: One of the ways where modern horror films grate on me is the shaky camera stuff.
Now, I’ll talk about some other things I liked or disliked about the movie, but I’ll enter the spoiler realm. So be warned, this is your cue to leave if you want to avoid spoilers.
BEGINNING OF SPOILERS
The death of Griff (played by Jamie Ballard), an insignificant character, was a good way to demonstrate that the group is vulnerable to the plague. It was a crucial event, but it would have more impact if it were a more notable representative of the party.
Now, back to Langiva, she led this remote village in the old ways of the pagans, doing things like using herbs as medicine and having a less dogmatic society. Of course, these people were persecuted by Christians, who claimed all this is a work of the devil.
The answer the people from the village decide to give is, kill every Christian they meet. That’s the decision I found questionable, if they wanted to be evil torturers, they could have remained Christians.
Despite the shitty pagans, the revelation that there was no magic, no god, no necromancer, and no shit, was amazing, I loved it. After struggling with his faith, Osmund killed the woman he loved for a lie he chose to believe.
It’s beautiful! That’s how it is in real life, people do stupid things in the name of their gods, but in the end, it just adds fuel to the perpetual pseudo-holy war. While religious leaders are all about power and money.
END OF SPOILERS
Black Death has a nearly flawless technical quality, a compelling, slightly familiar story, and some decisions didn’t please me. In general, it was a satisfactory view that I recommend, so I’m giving Black Death 8 Moons.
That’s it for now. Don’t forget to avoid killing people over your faith. Bye.