Black Death review

Goes off the boil…

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Black Death review - Centurion, Solomon Kane, Valhalla Rising… British horror has been getting seriously medieval on our asses lately.

Now it’s Severance director Christopher Smith’s turn. Can his fourth effort find some dark poetry in the Dark Ages?

Smith is a talented director, one of the great British hopes, but accusations of narrative magpie-ing dogged both Creep and Triangle, and Dario Poloni’s (Wilderness) screenplay is unlikely to provide absolution. The year is 1348 and the pestilence of the title – “more cruel and more pitiless than war” – has decimated England’s God-fearing populace.

Taking young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) as their guide, Ulric (Sean Bean) and his band of mercenaries are on a mission to reclaim a remote village from necromancer Langiva (Carice van Houten) – by force if necessary. It’s all in the name of The Lord, of course, but that doesn’t stop Bean and his not-so-merry-men raising merry hell along the way.

The period recreation is (well, looks) flawless, the fights are suitably brutal (Bean was born to wear armour, lop off limbs and shout, “We ride at dawn!”) and Smith conjures a benighted world of witch burnings and black-toothed corpses with handheld élan.

It’s only when the tragically miscast Tim McInnerny (too genial) and Van Houten (too Dutch) turn up that the film, like the protagonists, finds itself stuck. The supernatural threat they pose palls in comparison to the corporeal horrors of the plague outside – it’s hard to believe a bunch of tree-huggers could take on Boromir himself.

Things get back on track for the denouement, though genre fans may still feel they have bones to pick with Smith and Poloni. While the points the duo raise about the tyrannies of faith and indoctrination are valid ones, to borrow scenarios so baldly from two cult British classics (we’re not saying which) is practically blasphemy

Having set his characters adrift in a world gone-to-hell, Smith proceeds to leave them (and us) hanging. The result is a brave, serious-minded but odd film that promises more than it delivers

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Freelance Writer

Matt Glasby is a freelance film and TV journalist. You can find his work on Total Film - in print and online - as well as at publications like the Radio Times, Channel 4, DVD REview, Flicks, GQ, Hotdog, Little White Lies, and SFX, among others. He is also the author of several novels, including The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film and Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting To This Is England.