After persuading his secret lover, Averill (Kimberley Nixon), to flee their plague-ravaged town, doubting novice monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) joins the bishop’s devout military envoy, Ulric (Sean Bean), and his ragtag band of mercenaries on an expedition to a remote village. This village has mysteriously been spared the pestilence and is rumoured to be a hotbed of pagan beliefs and necromancy. Dragging behind them a huge wooden torture device, Ulric and his men are guided by Osmund through the woods and marshes, encountering bandits and witch-burning locals en route. The village, however, appears to be a benign gynocracy presided over by healer Langiva (Carice van Houten) and her avuncular acolyte, Hob (Tim McInnerny).
Beneath this placid surface, however, is a roiling pit of religious duplicity and moral decay.
Horror fans will note a structural similarity to ‘The Wicker Man’, but the real creative touchstone here is Herzog’s ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’. The ruthless Ulric represents the official church, yet his zealotry prompts the Abbot (David Warner) to remark: ‘That man is more dangerous than the pestilence itself.’ For all her showy paganism, is Langiva a heretical necromancer or merely a charlatan witch? Her bizarre bird’s-nest hairdo (and van Houten’s wavering accent) does not inspire confidence, yet the lovestruck Osmund is tempted to abandon his faith. This is bracing, often brutal stuff, set in a world where, as Ulric says, ‘God has slipped over the horizon.’