Black Death

Rating:

GAME OF BONES

Main Cast: Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne

Director: Christopher Smith

Things have calmed down at Condo Maine after my rather unfortunate adventures in the Deep South. Fajer and Hellmann, my attorneys, continue to stamp out some of the more heinous misinformation circulating out there about my recent incarceration. Something called Fibs of TikTok has been taking a number of clips of some of my more famous films and broadcasting them completely out of context with the headline Vicious Drag Queen Jailed for Cause, a bald faced lie.

tiara
One of my more understated tiaras.

I am not and never have been a drag queen – I am a 100 percent All American beauty queen with the sashes and tiaras to prove it. Women the world over have turned to me for glamor, pizazz, and star quality for more than sixty years… rather amazing when one considers that I remain only thirty-nine years of age, at least for professional purposes. My counsel are preparing a defamation lawsuit even as I write this column.

I am a great believer in the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity and, as the name Vicki Lester is appearing in the headlines, my publicists think I should capitalize on the moment. They have booked me as a celebrity guest judge on Drag Race to be followed by a one-on-one on camera interview with RuPaul where we’ll discuss the triumphs and tragedies of my personal life and my storied career.

The Abbey, a quaint little boite de nuit just down the road had a Vicki Lester look alike contest for their clientele, just before this past Sunday’s tea dance, in which a number of the boys appeared dressed and made up as my doppelganger. I snuck in the back way and took to the stage unannounced to do a quick rendition of I’ll Plant My Own Tree from the musical Hit the Sky for which I led the first national tour some years ago. I came in fourth.

With all of the excitement and having to get Condo Maine up and running and having to make sure that the rush holiday orders for VickiWear and MNM collector dolls were being shipped on time, I simply did not have a chance to get out to the flickers but I did catch a little breather this evening and slipped into the home theater with a jeroboam of Mumm’s and a large champagne flute and flipped through the various streaming services looking for a divertissement in which I could lose myself for a few hours. My finger hit the wrong button and I found myself, all of a sudden, watching a British – German film from 2010 entitled Black Death of which I had never heard. But, as the film stars Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne, I figured it could not be all bad. I was correct in my assessment; it wasn’t all bad. But it wasn’t all good either.

The year is 1348. We are in medieval England and it’s the first year of the bubonic plague, the Black Death of the title. The pestilence is spreading rapidly causing death and misery everywhere. We meet young Osmund (Redmayne), a novice monk in a monastery that’s being ravaged by the disease.

He has fallen in love with Averill (Kimberly Nixon) a young woman of the town in which the monastery is located. He is afraid for her life and convinces her to leave before she becomes infected. She wants him to come with her, but he is unwilling as his life is still consecrated to God. She tells him she will wait for him in a nearby forest for a week before seeking sanctuary elsewhere in the country. Osmund, torn by his inner conflict, looks for a sign from God as to what he should do.

Back at the monastery, a company of mercenaries led by Ulric (Bean) has appeared. They are convinced that the plague is the work of the devil, aided by human minions such as witches and necromancers. Ulric and his lieutenant Wolfstan (John Lynch) who is a bit of a religious zealot are determined to seek out these malefactors in the name of God and to bring them to divine justice which involves their wagon well equipped with various instruments of torture.

They have heard of a secluded village in the fen country untouched by the plague and they are convinced that a supernatural evil is afoot there. They ask the monks to provide them with a guide to this village for which Osmund volunteers, seeing this as a way for him to reunite with Averill.

Off they go on a Heart of Darkness journey to find the village. After a number of brutal and brutish episodes, they arrive to find the villagers clean and untouched by disease, led by the apparently amiable and steadfast Hob (Tim McInnerny) and the mysterious Langiva (Carice van Houten). There are temptations, betrayals, crises of faith and an ultimate understanding that there is no hell as bad as the one we carry within ourselves.

Black Death is full of big ideas – the impact of faith called into question, the nature of religious belief and the origins of zealotry, and even parallels between the crises of that long ago time and what we face today (although the film predates our current pandemic by ten years). Unfortunately, the script (Dario Poloni with uncredited rewrites by director Christopher Smith) isn’t smart enough to really pull off its themes. Or it veers off into various medieval adventure movie tropes and cliches. It does have a certain savageness of look in terms of staging and cinematography (Sebastian Edschmid) that serves it well.

Black Death was released a few months before the epic television series Game of Thrones went into production and I can’t believe for one minute that David Benioff and David Weiss didn’t do some lifting for their visual conception of Westeros. The film feels very like a riff on that series in some ways and I kept expecting Peter Dinklage to pop out from behind a rock or some of the Stark children to wander through a shot. This is reinforced by the presence of Sean Bean and Carice van Houten, as major protagonist and antagonist and both basically playing the same characters they played later in Game of Thrones (Lord Eddard Stark and Melisandre).

The fight scenes are brutal and messy – such was the way of medieval warfare. There are a couple of very gruesome torture/executions. There are closeups of buboes and other maladies. There is just enough is this real or is this supernatural going on to keep the viewer engaged.

The cast are all competent, if not necessarily exceptional. As the central figure, Eddie Redmayne is very good in the first three quarters of Black Death, but less convincing in his last scenes after a psychological transformation has supposedly taken place. The stalwart character actors playing the mercenaries are fine but it’s often difficult to distinguish them one from the other under their grime. Carice van Houten has ethereal witch woman down pat. Kimberly Nixon, as the ingenue heroine, is forgettable.

Black Death reminds me in some ways of Paul Verhoven’s Flesh + Blood from the 1980s which also used medieval tropes and plague to comment on modern society. This film, however, is much more subdued and nowhere near as operatic as Verhoven’s who seemed to be encroaching on Ken Russell territory. It also has elements reminiscent of Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Excalibur. Director Christopher Smith seems familiar with the canon of medieval adventure films.

I’m still trying to make up my mind if I really liked it or not. It’s competently made (except for some jarring continuity issues regarding seasons where people run back and forth from winter to autumn or autumn to spring depending on where they are in the landscape). It has decent performances. Black Death has something to say. But the whole thing ultimately feels too derivative and not fresh enough to really hold your attention.

Dead bodies. Symbolic dirt. Toe crushing. Crucifixion. Gratuitous head cleaving. Detached limbs. Mercy stabbings. Potential zombie. Witch denunciations. Drugged wine. Gratuitous David Warner.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction.

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