A few months back I was sitting in a screening of “Centurion,” and found myself irked in an entirely unexpected way. I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Picts, the warrior people north of Hadrian’s Wall, as so incredibly barbaric and uncivilized. Immediately I was confused; can a film be ethnically problematic at the expense a people who have not existed for roughly a millennium? For all cultural intents and purposes in the 21st century, the Picts might as well be imaginary, like their equally blue compatriots in “Avatar.” Yet it was clear that “Centurion” had something to say that was a bit deeper than your standard formula action film. How did these chilling tattooed warriors fit into that message?
I acknowledge that one does not need to be explicitly dealing with existent sections of humanity to fall into an unfortunate mode of representation that perpetuates real cultural problems. But I do not think that is what’s going on here. “Black Death,” which opens this weekend, doesn’t have any Pictish characters and avoids the subsequent difficulties, but it does also very clearly intend to be evocative of contemporary issues and ethical dilemmas that are even perhaps timeless. In fact, in recent years we have seen a small collection of films set in the distant European past, be it the Middle Ages or the decline of the Roman Empire, which use the long-forgotten political landscape as an open canvass for big questions. At the same time, by rooting the stories in at least a certain amount of historical reality, these films manage to achieve a greater degree of subtlety than a more boldly stated fantasy or sci-fi film. “Black Death” is no exception.
The film follows the story of a young, naïve monk named Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) in England during the height of the Black Plague. After a bit of spiritual melancholy, primarily due to his illicit and very un-monkly relationship with the youthful Averill (Kimberley Nixon), he ends up heading out into the wilderness to serve as local guide to Ulric (Sean Bean), the bishop’s intimidating enforcer. Their mission: find a mysteriously plague-free village in the marsh, discern whether or not they have abandoned the Church, and then ostensibly massacre them all in the name of god.
Of course, this gets much more complicated by the time they actually get to this village. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the bishop’s armed men are a pretty brutal bunch, and Ulric at one point interrupts a local witch-burning only to abruptly kill the poor woman himself. The enormous torture machine they are dragging along with them, an upright cage complete with internal spikes, is enough to make you shiver and question their motives. We watch these supposed men of god seem more and more violent and barbaric themselves, and when the group finally arrives at the (beautifully constructed and shot) village on its peaceful island in the marsh, we’ve already sided against these crusading defenders of institutional Christendom.
It gets more complicated again, though I won’t go into detail; you should go see it yourself. Suffice it to say that Carice van Houten is a force to be reckoned with as the clear spiritual leader of this village sanctuary, and the discourse around god and the best interests of humanity is somewhat difficult to untangle. By the end everyone has lost, and fanaticism has hurt the whole cast of characters. It’s a powerful message about the cycle of religious fervor and vengeance, and how in the end these ideologies can only destroy. The film actually goes too far in making this aspect of its point overwhelmingly clear, using an extended coda sequence which in turn oppresses an audience who should have been out in the lobby ten minutes earlier.
The other failures of the film arise from the same balance issue experienced by “Centurion” and “The Eagle,” two other recent historical action flicks with at least mild aspirations towards a greater thematic point. On paper, “Black Death’s” examination of religion, “Centurion’s” discussion of political corruption and foreign occupation, and “The Eagle’s” themes of racial power and privilege all find remarkably subtle expression in historical representation. The Catholic Church in the 14th century was far from what it is today, but the religious language and imagery of “Black Death” is just reminiscent enough of contemporary Christianity to drive the point home. However, taking that idea and balancing it with the demands of the action genre is not easy. It isn’t even clear which idea came first in the development of these three films, the thematic message or the drive to make a stabbing-filled historical thriller.
And that last ambiguity is where these films have their greatest difficulty. Sometimes people are killed in ridiculous ways (drawing and quartering, in “Black Death”) just to heighten the spectacle, which would be fine if there were not a concurrent attempt to enrich the theological debate. The excesses of violence distract from the ideas of the film, while Carice van Houten’s occasional speech about religion can seem almost silly next to somebody with an axe in his head.
Thankfully, “Black Death” walks this line more successfully than other films grappling with the same balance problem. Sean Bean and Carice van Houten are both successful as battling ideologues, though her performance is the clear stand-out. The sequences in the marsh village have a quiet beauty to them, and effectively portray the eerie tranquility of a town kept healthy against all odds in a world of putrid plague. The most thrilling moments are certainly effective, and the film manages to successfully stay unpredictable for the bulk of the narrative. If you’re looking for a thinking person’s action movie, this is a good bet.
“Black Death” opens March 11th in limited release and is currently available on video-on-demand.