Black Death Review

There is a website called Better Book Titles where people rewrite the titles for famous books. For example, The Scarlet Letter is renamed I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Oh, The Places You'll Go! is renamed Last-Minute Graduate Gift. When I saw the cover of Black Death, I wanted to rename it Sean Bean in Another Lord of the Rings Knock-Off. Now, I will be the first to admit that I was wrong about Black Death. Sean Bean does spend most of the movie riding around on a horse wearing armor and swinging a sword, but Black Death is a different beast from Bean's other recent projects. Black Death's style is closer to the original Saw than Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and audiences should go in with the right expectations if they want to appreciate it.

Black Death opens at a monastery in England during the Black Death. Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a monk, is struggling with the choice between his faith and the woman he loves, a local girl named Averill (Kimberly Nixon). When a devout knight Ulrich (Sean Bean) comes to the monastery looking for a guide, Osmund sees a way of getting away from the monastery and being with Averill. Unfortunately, the journey is rough, and instead of running off with his love, Osmund ends up in a village that has not been touched by the sickness but holds a dark secret hidden by their leader Langiva (Carice van Houten).

Without giving too much away, the story can be boiled down to the dangers of fundamental belief or disbelief in God. I think the reason why so many people had trouble with Black Death is that it shows adamant atheists as being just as evil as religious zealots who burn witches and look for scapegoats. The only sympathetic character is Osmund, and even Osmund eventually snaps and does some pretty evil stuff. Black Death is meant to be a cautionary tale, not a traditional story with clear-cut good guys and bad guys, and I think that will alienate a lot of viewers.

Another element working against Black Death is the film's style of violence. Sean Bean's other projects like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are violent, but they are more adventurous whereas Black Death is dark and brutal. With the exception of one scene on the way to the village, most of the deaths are outright executions. A man is ripped to pieces by horses. Another man is crucified. A third man is hanged. They are killed because they refuse to publicly denounce their faith and accept a professed witch as their new god and protector. This kind of violence is unsettling instead of the bad-ass fist-pumping violence some audiences are expecting, and many people will write it off immediately instead of understanding what the director was trying to accomplish.

The toughest part of talking about Black Death is knowing whether to recommend it to people. I have gone back and forth several times, and I've decided that while I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, Black Death is an intriguing little film for people who want something different from the Middle Ages genre. At the very least, it could lead to many discussions on religion's place in society. So many people like Langiva want to blame religion for all of society's ills. They gather like-minded unbelievers around them and complain how the world would be so much better without religion and their followers. Black Death challenges that notion and shows how unyielding belief or disbelief alike can lead to pain and suffering.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Special features include several deleted scenes, a couple of making-of featurettes, cast and crew interviews, and the theatrical trailer for Black Death.

"Black Death" is on sale May 10, 2011 and is rated R. Action, Drama, Horror. Directed by Christopher Smith. Written by Dario Poloni. Starring Carice Van Houten, Eddie Redmayne, Kimberly Nixon, Sean Bean.

Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at


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