Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Death becomes them all

Again with the old pals routine
My old pal Rob- whose job regularly takes him to Sweden for weeks at a time, was back in town last week so we decided a trip to the cinema was in order. We chose to go see Black Death, a film which has been on my 'would like to see' list ever since I noticed its release. Regular readers should have no difficulty in guessing why a film set in plague-ridden medieval England should appeal to me, but I'll come back to that later.

The critic's eye
There is a lengthy review on the IMDb Black Death page in which I think the reviewer is quite quite wrong. The IMDb page correctly tags Black Death with the horror and mystery genres. These features of the movie are nowhere addressed in that review; poor form and a shame, because these were the movie's strengths.

The mystery central to the story is straightforward: there is a village which is reputed to be free from the ravages of the plague. Why? Witchcraft and daemonology is the answer which springs to the mind of some of the church's more 'devoted' servants, who are sent out to investigate and to bring the fallen to preordained and bloody 'justice'. Interwoven with this mystery for the characters is one for the audience: will the satanic forces supposed to be protecting this village be real, or will they just be projections of medieval Christianity's own inner darkness?

Supernatural or psychological horror? This simple question- posed both by the plot and by the audience's own situation, is deftly handled and is the engine of Black Death's drama, generating tension which rises nicely through satisfying twists and turns towards ultimate resolution. Part of this is down to the characterisation, deemed "cardboard" by our IMDb 'reviewer'. The point here is that- by the time the witch hunters arrive at the village, we understand them well enough so that we are looking at the world through their eyes, with the result that what they finally encounter deepens the mystery, ratchets up the tension, and sets the stage very nicely for the final act.

It is clear that the IMDb reviewer is missing the point completely when he complains that the "conversations [in the village] were between cardboard characters; mentions of God weren't enough to create meaningful discussions." A "missed opportunity" he calls it. You what?

Consider the situation: on the one hand we have a village; on the other, a party of fanatical Christian witch hunters who already know the former are fallen and who are just looking for the evidence they need to bring down the wrath of a righteous Lord on those deserving heads. What prospect could there be for meaningful religious discourse in this atmosphere of mutual suspicion between people already ideologically closed to each other's viewpoints?

The truth is that the characters in Black Death aren't cardboard. They are drawn in exactly as much depth as their role in the story requires. If this wasn't so then the witch hunters' arrival at the village simply couldn't've been the fine moment it was. More than that, the scenes in the village as the movie rises to its climax deftly manipulate the audience's sympathies so that by the end of the film you're sitting there warily keeping your eye on both sides, so to speak. It would be too much to say that this is profound, but it's certainly a long way from stupid, and definitely much much more subtle than staple blockbuster fare.

"Unnecessarily graphic violence" is the phrase demonstrating our IMDb reviewer is more than merely obtuse, that he is bitching blindly because he went to see the wrong movie. That violence will feature in the story is plain as day as soon as we meet the collection of misbegotten veterans of the Battle of Crecy who are the witch hunters. The bleached and grainy cinematography which unflinchingly depicts the pestilent horrors of the Black Death foreshadow a similarly grim treatment of the inevitable violence. And make no mistake about it: when it comes, that violence is gut-wrenchingly visceral; a life or death struggle in which every blow counts because each miss is one more chance for your opponent to kill you. Authentic precisely because it is so appalling in other words.

I liked Black Death a lot. It's a very competent unpretentious little movie which was never less than engrossing even when it was almost too gruesome. One or two plot twists were a little obvious, but that's not a serious complaint for this satisfied customer. Definitely worth watching. DVD would be fine because it's not really a big screen spectacular.

The geek's eye
It wasn't long after the screening began that I realised Black Death was giving us a portrait of medieval life more coarsely and grubbily authentic than that I'd enjoyed so much last month in the otherwise unspectacular Robin Hood. The difference between Black Death and Robin Hood parallelled that between Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey: everything in Black Death looked much more of its time and place, more lived in, than had similar trappings in Robin Hood.

And it wasn't long after that that I realised this difference was akin to that between the cod medievalism of classic high fantasy in RPGs, on the one hand; and the "grim world of perilous adventure" that is WFRP, on the other. You can imagine, dear readers, that this contributed mightily to my enjoyment of a movie which already needed no assistance in that department. Exactly as with Robin Hood, roleplayers- GM or PC both, could loot Black Death for material to bring to their games: characters, incidents (just look at those flagellants above!), locations, the plot entire; all would fit nicely into a roleplaying campaign but especially, I reckon, into WFRP's Old World.

The fight scenes were a particular case in point when it came to how much the depiction of medieval England in Black Death echoed WFRP both as a setting and as a system. I could almost see those critical hit dice being rolled (my 1st and 2nd edition WFRP heritage speaking there) as people were ruthlessly struck down and brutally finished off in fights which had nothing to do with the extended exchanges of blows typical of many action movies' fight scenes. It wasn't pleasant but that was the point of course, exactly as it is in WFRP.
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