One of the great adventures of contemporary cinema (as opposed to the relative assurance of the past) is tracking young directors. New voices, new visions, and whether they arrive fully formed or need time grow, take shape. Whether they do indeed grow, or are sustained or even decay. And the roads directors take, direct progression/regression or the more convoluted. Although accomplished from the start, Christopher Smith has taken rather the convoluted route by tackling several distinct subgenres, Black Death his most recent and it seems, the apex of his powers so far. Evoking Witchfinder General and at least one other classic Brit horror, though it pales by comparison it really shows a talent on the cusp of greatness.
The story sees a young monk caught between religion and the world, who takes on a mission of escorting holy troops through treacherous territory to dark destination, a village exempt from the plague in which it is said God no longer reigns. In the best spirit though, the mission and destination reveal the underlying idea, society for all its contrasts permeated with rot and savagery. Religious isolation that controls rather than aids, and violence spread through the righteous, the lawless and the simply uneducated. Essentially a condition in which something as significant as plague is still just a catalyst.
Unfortunately things don't come through quite as strongly as they should. Most have the easy chemistry of English veterans coming together (Tim McIninerny is particularly fun), while Dutch stunner Carice van Houten owns her evilly regal character. It's well paced and attractively shot too, moving nicely from damp and grim to light and alluring as events progress. But much of the potential blood, gore and general unpleasantness here is avoided, a move which one suspects was made to keep the audience from being distracted from the point by having fun but really comes across as squeamishness. To be fair, objectionable editing and speed cam are largely avoided, the grisliness is often just out of frame and there's a fair sprinkling of effective grue. But things are a little squeamish and offputting all the same. More troublesome though is the climax, which affords powerful turns to just two characters, largely abandoning the rest. The others may not have been key to the main drama, but their abandonment hurts the film as a whole, and the avoidance of most possible fireworks also dampens things. Then we get a coda which though smart in idea is sketchy and muddled in execution. All a bit of a bringdown from what is pretty striking for a good spell.
But for the most part this is solid, thought provoking stuff, that it doesn't fully succeed is ultimately less important than its general qualities. So pretty well recommended dudes and dudettes.