The year is 1348 and a plague known far and wide as the Black Death has struck Europe, wiping out vast swathes of the population, though rumours of small pockets of immune societies abound. In an English monastery where the monks are under threat from the disease, young novice Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) has to sneak out of the community regularly to visit his childhood sweetheart, but now that is growing more difficult she tells him she is moving away to safety - so how can he follow?
Well, it just so happens that a handy band of hardmen are passing through the area and the monks, led by David Warner, one of many recognisable faces to grace this tale, have a mission for them to undertake. That mission is to find out the truth of a town in the midst of the marshlands which is supposed to have found an immunity to the plague by mysterious means: if this is true, then it has all sorts of implications. The leader of the mercenaries, all of whom are devout Christians (an important point), is Ulric (Sean Bean) and he selects Osmund to accompany them for they need a man of God.
Actually, what the young man really wants is an excuse to leave the monastery to meet his girl, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), at a predetermined place in the forest, fearing that if he does not he will never see her again, so for a start the matters of the heart and the matters of God are in conflict. This being set in a deeply religious period for Europe, the depiction of it here veers between a salvation for the suffering of the believers and a condemnation of complacency in the face of unnecessary misery as after all, a less superstitious society would mean that nobody would be victimised for failing to live up to the lofty standards of the believers.
Indeed, even if you are a believer there's no guarantee it will save you from a horrible death, whether from the plague or at the hands of violent citizens looking for easy scapegoats rather than genuine reasons why things are as bad as they are. It was a more thematically heavy horror movie than director Christopher Smith had been used to, probably because he wasn't working from one of his own scripts (Dario Poloni was the man responsible for that), and sadly the ruminations on weighty theological issues were not something he was able to make particularly palatable, meaning there was not much fun to be had with Black Death, not that you would have expected that.
But nevertheless, it was so drenched in gloom and despondency that little about it spoke to entertainment, so its ambiguity over its take on Christianity looked more like confusion. Starting out like a cross between Witchfinder General and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (there's even an Aguirre lookalike!) once the travellers reach the semi-mystical town, which does exist, halfway through events appear to take on a more supernatural flavour, but don't be fooled, this is relentlessly earthbound throughout, and goes out of its way to shoot down any thoughts of anything other than the cruelties of mankind and Mother Nature as the true culprits. If there is a God here, He is as punishingly bleak in his outlook as his followers suggest, as if to say, you're not here to enjoy your lives, you're here to endure them, and be thankful you got the chance to worship the Almighty who put you here. As far as that goes, the film has an raw, authentic atmosphere, but good luck in finding much amusing here. Music by Christian Henson.
British writer and director with a penchant for the macabre. After making short films at film school, it was seven years before his first feature was released, the London Underground-set chiller Creep. He followed it with well-received comedy horror Severance and shipboard puzzle Triangle, then the medieval horror quest Black Death. As a change of pace, he next directed his own spin on Christmas, family fantasy Get Santa.