Film / Black Death

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Black Death is a 2010 movie from Christopher Smith (director of Creep (2004), Severance and Triangle), starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne and Carice Van Houten.

In 1348 the Bubonic Plague sweeps through England. Frightened, many people blame witches or their own sins. Osmund, a novice in a monastery, volunteers to guide knight Ulric and his men to a village, which the plague has not reached at all and is therefore suspect. What the knights do not know is that Osmund volunteered to have a chance to see his girl.

One of the primary themes of the film is total uncertainty with how one interacts with the world. The whispers in the woods may be demons, it may be highwaymen. The village witch may be in league with Satan, she may just know how to brew poisons. The town may be warded, it may just be isolated. The plague may target the unrighteous first, everyone may be damned together.


Black Death contains examples of:

  • A Father to His Men: Wolfstan.
  • Affably Evil: Langiva remains calm and polite, even when presiding over death and torture. Of course, thanks to the Grey and Grey Morality, she may not be considered straightforwardly "evil" either.
  • Anachronism Stew: The year is clearly stated to be 1348, which makes several things out of place:
    • In 1348, the Black Death had only just begun infiltrating England. The existence of a village untouched by the pestilence would not be as remarkable as it would be one or two years later when the whole country was infested.
    • In real life, plague doctors didn't start wearing those masks with a bird beak to hold herbs until the 17th century.
    • Mold uses a type of saw-toothed "sword-breaker" dagger that didn't exist until the 17th century.
    • One scene takes place in a forest with suspiciously homogeneous, straight-growing trees, a manicured tree line, and stumps that were obviously cut with saws. The reason is that it's filmed in a modern German timber forest.
  • Artistic License History: Some pointers borrowed from Lindybeige:
    • Witch-hunts did not become a common phenomenon in Europe until the 15th century. The usual scapegoats during the 14th century black death were the Jews, who were long before suspected of poisoning wells and spreading diseases among Christendom. On the other hand, outright apostates like the villagers would have been killed indeed, regardless of whether they practiced witchcraft or not. It's also very unlikely any person at the time would completely disbelieve in God.
    • The abbot says that Osmund is a mere novice, but it's rather implausible that Osmund would still be a novice at his age. Granted, it took four or five years to become a monk, but those given to the church would have become novices when they were perhaps seven.
    • Osmund must have the smallest tonsure (shaved crown) and the largest monks' cell in Christendom.
    • The tapestries in the abbey look old and faded like they do in museums today, but back then they would have looked brand new.
    • A monk would be qualified to hear someone's confession, but not a novice. People also talk about friars and monks as if they're synonymous, when it's as big as the difference between a policeman and a fireman.
    • Nobody in the 14th century would refer to a man Osmund's age (the actor was 27 at the time, and could pass for 18 at best) as a boy, since the concept of adolescence didn't really exist yet and males were considered to be legal adults after age twelve or so.
  • The Atoner: Ulric probably, as it is likely that he had been at the battle of Crecy, where their opponents had been slaughtered instead of being given a mercy strike. He does give one to the woman accused of being a witch.
  • The Black Death: Obviously.
  • Burn the Witch!
  • Blood from the Mouth: The symptom indicating that Griff has been infected. Subverted in that he doesn't die but is finished off by his friend.
  • Came Back Wrong: Subverted, because Averill was set up to seem this, while she actually wasn't. Maybe. It's hard to tell.
  • Celibate Hero: Averted. Even though Osmund is a monk, he secretly has a lover.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The cage.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Justified in that this is fourteenth century England.
  • Crapsack World: If the plague doesn't get you the bandits or the witch-burners will. And if the witch hunters from the Church don't get you, the witches and their heretical followers might. You just can't win.
  • Creepy Child: The very first thing the gang see in the village.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Ulric's death (torn apart by horses) is horrific. Such punishment or its equivalent was historically reserved only for high treason and regicide, mainly because it was considered extremely cruel.
  • Daydream Surprise: When praying, Osmund sees dead Averill calling his name, then he brought back to reality by Ulrich, who does the same.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Osmund certainly suffers one of these as a result of his journey.
  • Downer Ending: Good God, yes.
  • The Dung Ages: During most of the scenes you can practically feel the dirt under your fingernails. You can certainly see it on the characters! Even individuals whose social status or occupation would require that they be well-dressed and groomed look very scruffy and disheveled. A monastery with so little religoius decoration would also be unthinkable.
  • The Dragon: Hob is this to Langiva.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Ulric and Swire.
  • The Final Temptation: Played with. Osmund's scene with Averill in the barn is described as such, but it turns out that it may have been something else altogether.
  • Genre-Busting: A horror-action-period piece drama.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: The movie goes out of its way to show cruelty on both sides.
  • Holier Than Thou
  • Hollywood Atheist: Hob, (and possibly the other villagers) who declares there is no God, heaven or hell. His work is performing human sacrifices of Christians that refuse to give up their faith (though those who do are still killed out of view). Langiva may be one too, as Hob is her follower, although her speech is more ambiguous between this and denouncing God as evil.
  • Hollywood Costuming: Sticklers will have a field day, again courtesy of Lindybeige. The usual ahistorical studded leather bondage gear that's supposed to be leather "armor" is present. You can see modern materials and fasteners such as pop-rivets on some costumes, and knitted fabric painted to look like chain mail.
  • Hollywood Torches: Like a lot of movies, this one has an unrealistic amount of lighting by wastefully constantly burning torches.
  • Human Sacrifice: Not played entirely straight, as the "witch" knows full well she cannot perform magic and only kills people to keep the villagers in line. Perhaps witches lie and we can never be quite sure of what exactly Langiva does is magic or chemistry. If she was a true witch then by lying to Osmund she contributed to his corruption, a goal one would expect..
  • Idiot Ball: The knights deeply distrust the villagers, know their leader knows her way with herbs, and still drink and eat what they offer.
  • Karma Houdini: Osmund ends up torturing and killing countless innocent women for her crimes, but Langiva apparently gets off scot free. This is left somewhat ambiguous, however.
  • Kill 'em All: Out of the entire band of people they started out with, only Osmund and Wolfstan survived until the end of the movie.
  • Knight Templar: Ulric. Later Osmund as well.
  • Lady Land
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Whether or not Langiva actually practices magic or is just a keen judge of character and manipulator of desperate people remains in doubt. Certain circumstances support either idea.
  • Mercy Kill:
    • Wolfstan gives one to Griff when he reveals that he's got the plague. Characters also discuss the use of misericorde on the battlefield.
    • Ulrich claimed that he killed the accused witch quickly in order to spare her from death by burning - a far worse fate.
  • Mission from God: Ulric.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: A woman who tried to protect her village with a blessing got accused of being a witch. Doubles as Idiot Ball, as even pretending to use magic is a bad idea among the superstitious folk in the times like this.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: No demons, no witchcraft (maybe), just people turning on each other in times of desperation. The ending is a crushing example of this.
  • Only in It for the Money: Word for word quote from the Squire.
  • The Ophelia: Subverted in that Averill was drugged, perhaps.
  • Ragtag Band of Misfits: Ulric's retinue consists of two war veterans, a mute soldier, a crazed murderer, a professional executioner/torturer and a mercenary.
  • Real Is Brown: Folks of all conditions are depicted wearing very drab clothing, and the monastery is shown as bare-walled and austere, whereas real-life medieval people were fond of colorful clothes and filled the insides of their religious buildings with painting. You'd think they'd at least put some paint and gold on the crucifix, they're Catholic for God's sake!
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Osmund, at the end of the movie.
  • Secretly Dying: Ulric.
  • See You in Hell
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Wolfstan appears to be heavily shaken by the events he witnessed at Crécy.
  • Shoot the Dog: Ulric mercy-kills an accused witch instead of leaving her to a horrible death by burning. Also serves as his Establishing Character Moment: There are many kinds of mercy...
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The group arrives to the village and discover the inhabitants are actually heretics. They are then drugged and when they wake up the whole group is killed off one by one in horrific ways and Osmund is tricked into killing his lover. In the end only Osmund and one other member of the party survive, with Osmund's faith horrible shaken. We then discover that the whole film was probably Osmund's Start of Darkness as we get an epilogue showing that Osmund abandoned being a monk to search the land for the main witch, torturing and killing any girl that looks like her, and even ones that definitely don't.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Far on the cynical side.
  • Sliding Scale of Shiny Versus Gritty: Way, way, way on the side of gritty. In fact, when the company eventually reach the the village after days trudging through mud and grime, it is alienating in its cleanliness and serenity.
  • Slut-Shaming: The men try this on Langiva, screaming "whore" when she presides over their captivity, even though she's done nothing even remotely sexual in her treatment of them, or anyone else for that matter (in fact, there's no sex or even nudity in the film, period). Most likely it's just a go-to insult toward any woman in that era.
  • Taking You with Me: Ulric.
  • The Speechless: Ivo had his tongue taken out by the French while a prisoner.
  • Start of Darkness: Turns out the whole movie is effectively Osmund's.
  • Taking You with Me: Ulric, who revealed he had the plague just before he was killed.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Averted - Ulric tosses his blade at the retreating highwaymen in the forest, but it just clatters uselessly on the ground.
  • Title Drop: Averted. Though the movie is set during the Black Death, it is never named as such in any dialogue, usually referred to instead as "the pestilence." This is true to history, as the plague was not given its popular name until much later.
  • Torches and Pitchforks: The first village they encounter.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Somewhere between this and Uncanny Village, anyway.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: The whole thing. Was Langiva protecting the village from the plague, or was it just isolated? Was Averill brought back from the dead, brought from the brink of death with brain damage, or was she just drugged? Even the epilogue ends on an ambiguous note: is Osmund seeing Langiva's faces in every woman because she really has magic she's using on him, or is it simply that he's delusional?
  • Utopia Justifies the Means
  • What a Senseless Waste of Human Life: The whole damn thing, whether people are dying from The Black Death or the WitchHunts that follow.

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