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  • History
  • 2010

Black Death

Black Death


Sean Bean's holy warriors put their faith to the test in this atmospheric thriller set during the middle ages


It is the year of our lord, 2010. A plague of hogs is on the Earth. Fanatics collect fresh scalps daily, while the recession picks off the rest of us, scattering our bones like dice before the doors of the dole office. And, news just in: a bunch of repressive overlords have just seized control of England.

Released into an era of poverty, pestilence and bad religion, Christopher Smiths historical horror-thriller Black Death fits the new Dark Ages like an bloodied iron gauntlet. Rather conspicuously, and this more than likely has a lot to do with the global recession, it also arrives during a year when there have been a slew of apocalyptic, or incense-flavoured films, including The Book of Eli, Solomon Kane, Legion and The Road. No wonder the distributors have already delayed its release three times.

Set in 1348, the incense here is all-pervading. The Catholics are in charge, witch trials are commonplace, and the flagellants are beating themselves up over nothing. The graveyards are bursting with bodies. (It is estimated that the Black Death felled around 30-40 per cent of the population of England between 1347 and 1351.) Yet, just like in 'Asterix', one small village of indomitable pagans still holds out against the epidemic.

This, perhaps, isn't as strange as it sounds. The writers have clearly done some homework, and may be aware that most English towns actually recovered remarkably quickly. However, such absurdly rude health naturally raises suspicions of devilish pacts, and it helps matters not that the village is effectively run by a woman (Black Books Carice van Houten, self-assured and 'good with herbs'); this at a time when female villagers are kind of thin on the ground anyway for reasons of Church-sponsored genocide. Bishop's envoy Ulric (an icy Sean Bean) and his un-merrie men saddle up and set forth to drag the demon out. As in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, what happens next pits blind faith against ferocious dogma.

Brit-horror director Smith has been a name to watch for a while (Severance, Triangle), and he's played a blinder here. This is a powerfully haunting film, rivalling The Name of the Rose for period atmosphere, and evoking some of the marvellous weirdness of The Devils, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and aforementioned Wicker Man. (It is also reminiscent of a largely forgotten Thirty Years War drama, The Last Valley.) It's a gory story: limbs are torn from sockets; brains are scooped out by studded maces. But most arrestingly, this addresses ever-relevant questions such as: 'How do you make a zealot?', 'What makes your God better than my God?' and, that old favourite, 'Who put you in charge anyway?'

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Andy Nyman, David Warner, Sean Bean, Kimberley Nixon, Eddie Redmayne, Carice Van Houten, John Lynch, Tim McInnerny, Johnny Harris
  • Director: Christopher Smith
  • Screen Writer: Dario Poloni
  • Producer: Jens Meurer, Douglas Rae, Philip Robertson, Robert Bernstein
  • Composer: Christian Henson

In a nutshell

Catch the Black Death, coming soon to your village.

by Ali Catterall

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