It amazes me that Christopher Smith doesn't get nearly the fanfare he deserves, especially after the excellent tour de force that was Triangle. Aside from London Fright Fest and its followers there seems to very little publicity for his films. Nevertheless his newest creation, medieval thriller Black Death, was unleashed on a packed cinema of dedicated fans at the world premiere in 2010, and finished to resounding applause as Mr. Smith showed us that he can put an entire film together in about a year and still come out with something that is even better than his last. In fact it is his ability to learn and develop with each film that make this director a just addition to your "must see every new film he makes" list (yes, I know you all have people you actively seek out just as much as I do). Now Black Death comes home on DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Magnolia Films.
Black Death, as mentioned above, is a medieval thriller. Not a genre that is a personal favourite of mine I'll admit, and one that has produced very few worthy films so far (this, of course, being one of them). The story follows Osmand (Eddie Redmayne), a novice monk, who is torn between his vows and Avril (Kimberley Nixon) - the woman he loves who has fled the village to escape the plague that is sweeping the land. When knight Ulrich (Sean Bean - trodding similiar territory in HBO's current smash, Game of Thrones) arrives at the monastery looking for a holy man to lead his band of mercenaries across the marsh to a village that is rumoured to be free of the pestilence, Osmand sees a way to leave the monastery without betraying his vows, and volunteers. Of course things are never simple, and things soon get violent, complicated, and messy for poor Osmand.
Back in 2010, Christopher Smith spoke at the premiere of how the story came to him while he was editing Triangle, and how the story holds a mirror to the fundamentalism that is present in contemporary society. Watching the film the viewer is starkly reminded of the witch-hunts of medieval England, and the savage murder and torture that went on "in God's name". This savagery is portrayed brutally on screen with one or two scenes causing a large majority of the audience to flinch and look away. In fact it seems that the director enjoyed a turning of the tables somewhat, with the production studio encouraging him to make the film more cerebral and darker while he was fighting to further the violence and gore.
The characters of Black Death actually feel like real people, as opposed to so many Hollywood films where the characters feel like soulless cutouts. Part of this is due to the quality of writing, but a lot of it is due to the worthy performances given by the actors. Newcomer Eddie Redmayne in particular pulled out an especially good performance as the lowly monk who is slowly crushed inside by the events he witnesses or is party to. And the image of Carice van Houten's as the witch Langiva is firmly instilled in my mind thanks to her razor sharp acting and also, as the film says itself, "because she's beautiful". Finally, of course, is the unmissable Sean Bean who turns a perfect role as Ulrich, giving us just enough to engage with the character but holding back enough to keep a sense of mystery around this enigmatic knight.
Black Death comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Mangolia Films Magnet imprint, and features a fittingly grungy and dark 2.39:1 widescreen transfer. The film's dark color palette and gritty visual aesthete are complemented wonderfully by the transfer, with a fine sheen of filmic grain lending the image a welcome cinematic quality. Detail is exceptional, especially in facial features, wardrobe, and textures, while blacks are robust, with strong contrasting throughout.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track is an engaging one, featuring nicely integrated spatial effects, distinct sound seperation, and powerful, rumbling bass. Dialogue is clear and well-nuanced.
Bonus features include a short Making-of featurette, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. Trailers for other Magnet/Magnolia releases round out the supplements.
Black Death is another excellent film from Christopher Smith who only seems to get better with each new production. A medieval thriller with hints of the supernatural, a fast paced story, beautiful locations, and some scenes that will stick in your mind. Definitely worth a watch even if, like me, "medieval thriller" isn't usually a description that generates much excitement for you.