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The plague’s the thing

by
09 June 2010

Stephen Brown sees two films tackling the darker side of life

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IN MANY recent films, Christians and some rival ideology do very unpleasant things to one another — Agora, Legion, The Calling, for example — but none as graphically as in Black Death (Cert. 18).

The director Chris Smith’s pedigree is in horror movies, but nothing he throws on to the screen can match the plague that swept 14th-century Christendom. Accord­ing to this film, the Black Death gave rise to convoluted theological inter­pretations in which those who had so far escaped it must be in league with the Devil.

Sean Bean plays Ulrich, leading a group of mercenaries on a quest commissioned by the bishop to root out a community who appear to be immune to the infection, and thus on the road to damnation.

En route, this wild bunch (who carry gruesome and cumbersome instruments of torture with them) call at a monastery. They need a guide through the forest. One of the novices, Osmund (Eddie Red­mayne), volunteers. His ulterior motive is that he is not sure that he is cut out for the religious life, having a girlfriend, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), on the side whom he wishes to meet.

Eventually, there is tragedy all round, when the Christians en­counter the apparently hospitable pagan villagers. They turn out to be just as horrible as most other people in the film. The mercenaries’ search for a necromancer is fulfilled when they meet Langiva, the local witch. After her bravura performance in The Black Book, this one from Carice van Houten is faintly disappointing. Hardly surprising: Dario Poloni’s screenplay has less refinement than a sledgehammer.

We are given a truly Manichaean perspective, in which the world, whether it be nature or humanity, is mainly in the grip of evil. The saintly Abbot (David Warner) and Averill are lone examples of divine love at work. Even the broken-hearted Osmund succumbs to badness. Perhaps the plague we meet here is not of the body, but of the soul.

What does the film have to teach our modern world? Well, there do seem to be floating in the air vestiges of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Nice and the Good, in which the nice people (like Tim McInnerny’s Hob) aren’t very good, and, on the other hand, the good people aren’t that nice. Ulrich is a case in point. It is his pragmatic morality that just about commends itself. Ultimately, there is little choice when all you get in Black Death is a barrel of rotten apples. I yearned for an alternative theological vision to have been introduced into the movie by some precursor, perhaps, of Thomas à Kempis, Julian of Norwich, or Walter Hilton.

This would have countered the all-too-apparent excesses of a misguided Christianity that the pagans abhor while gleefully joining in the blood-fest.

On general release.

On general release.

FEW FILMS make as many refer­ences to other works as Heartless (Cert. 18), by the writer-director Philip Ridley.

Twenty-five-year-old Jamie (Jim Sturgess) bears a Cain-like facial mark in the shape of a heart. Jamie is, by turns, repulsed by, and yet fascinated enough to photograph, a London East End where gangs of masked hoodies commit appalling violence. In an escalating series of horrors, his mother is burned to death, and Jamie concludes that this is the work of the devil.

The locus of evil is a tower block, Cedrillon, a name long associated with fairy tales. Jamie is summoned by Papa B (a chillingly diabolical performance from Joseph Mawle) to this place of dereliction. But if you look closely, this is Jamie’s homely flat transformed into Satan’s lair. The film’s colour coding changes at this point from a predominantly red palette, denoting reality, to that of a slimy green that can be taken as either signalling the start of fantasy or an encounter with the Evil One.

Religious imagery is scattered all over the film, from the Madonna statuette that Jamie’s mother displays to recurrent shots of a labyrinth, that ambiguous symbol of entrapment and release. Jamie makes a Faustian pact with the devil in exchange for losing his disfigurement. Just as his face becomes heart-less, so does his being. In a reversal of what happens to odious Cousin Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jamie’s outer skin is removed to reveal a beautiful but deadly incarnation.

He is aided and abetted by the eponymous Belle, a young girl who, as in The Last Temptation of Christ, is the devil’s daughter. Jamie begins doing terrible things. This includes cutting out the heart of a male prostitute and depositing it before the final stroke of midnight on the steps of what looks like Hawks­moor’s church in Spitalfields. As in many another horror story, redemp­tion comes in the form of the love of a good woman, who, it transpires, is not exactly innocent herself. In this case, Beauty doesn’t rid the beast of his ugliness, but simply loves him as he is, removing the devil’s power over him.

Jamie’s quest for good looks has clearly lead to his nightmarish downfall. (Earlier, another character quotes Rilke to the effect that beauty is the beginning of terror.) When Jamie escapes from this labyrinth of despair, he is propelled into the Edenic park of his childhood. There, his father, George (Timothy Spall), is sitting by what would seem to be the Tree of Life. George provides a theodicy worthy of the fifth-century mystic Dionysius (later immortal­ised in the poetry of Henry Vaughan), when he tells Jamie that things sometimes have to get really dark so that you can see the stars. By the end of Heartless, Jamie finds them.

Some heavy-handed moments (an overwrought soundtrack for one thing) mean that there is no mistaking where Philip Ridley’s heart is: right there on his sleeve for all to see. Even so, I hope many do.

On release in cinemas, on DVD and Blu-ray, video-on-demand, rental, and download-to-own.

www.heartlessmovie.com

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