Follow TV Tropes


Film / Black Death

Go To

Black Death is a 2010 movie from Christopher Smith (director of Creep (2004), Severance (2006) 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 investigate a village which has suspiciously managed to avoid the plague. 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, abounding with cases of Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane. The whispers in the woods may be demons, or they may be highwaymen. The village witch may be in league with Satan, or she may just know how to brew poisons. The town may be warded, or it may just be isolated. The plague may target the unrighteous first, or everyone may be damned together.

Black Death contains examples of:

  • 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.
  • All for Nothing: How you could interpret the mission to apprehend the necromancer. There was no necromancer and Langiva likely wasn’t a real witch, just a clever woman gifted in the use of herbs who ultimately escapes. Numerous men die and Osmund becomes a vengeance seeking inquisitor/torturer because what they thought was magic was probably just luck on part of the village.
    • You could interpret the ultimate fate of the village as this was well. They followed Langiva because her supposed magic protected them from the plague, committing numerous atrocities to hide themselves from the wider world. It all was ultimately worthless as the plague ended up reaching and devastating them as it did so many others before them.
  • Ambiguous Situation: During the film’s closing moments, we see an older, embittered Osmund still hunting the witch years after the events of the main story. He comes across numerous women and sees her face in them, ordering these seemingly innocent women to be horrifically tortured before being executed. It’s not clear if the witch cast a spell on him, causing him to see her when it isn’t her or if he has simply been driven mad by grief and rage and is simply delusional.
  • 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 historical liberties and errors pointed out by Lindybeige:
    • Witch-hunts did not become a common phenomenon in Europe until the 15th century. It’s true that outright apostates like the villagers would have been killed indeed, regardless of whether they practiced witchcraft or not. That said, it’s very unlikely any person at the time would become an outright atheist as the villagers are; everyone in the Middle Ages grew up immersed in a religious environment, Christian or not, and thus most of the Catholic Church's trouble came not from people who were completely irreligious, but rather from people who believed in other religions or heresies that contradicted fundamental doctrine.
    • 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. The fact that Osmund hears someone's confession at one point implies that he is a monk, since a novice would not be qualified to do that.
    • 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.
    • People also talk about friars and monks as if they're synonymous, when it's at least as big as the difference between a policeman and a fireman.
    • 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.
  • 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: The group is investigating a town mysteriously absent of this disease.
  • 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: Yes. Every one of the men investigating the village dies, with the exception of Wolfstan and Osmund, the latter of whom has killed his drugged wife under the belief that she had been resurrected by Langiva, and goes on his own one-man crusade, hunting down and killing women he suspects of witchcraft in a search for the witch responsible for his lover's death.
  • 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.
  • The Heart: Wolfstan fulfills this role among the soldiers. He is someone who has grown weary of constant fighting and bloodshed. When it’s revealed that one of the men has contracted the plague en route to their destination he shows compassion and understanding while others in the group are fearful. He even questions Hob in an effort to understand why the village chose to follow Langiva. During the film’s climax, Wolfstan’s narration tells of how Osmund became a hollow, vengeance-driven inquisitor in search of Langiva. He narrates that he hopes his friend still managed to see the beauty and goodness in the world despite the dark path he took.
  • 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.
  • Knight Templar: Ulric. Later Osmund as well.
  • 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.
  • 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 horribly 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). Thanks to Deliberate Values Dissonance, "whore" is just the default choice for insulting a woman regardless of anything she says or does. It really was the gravest insult to any woman throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, unfounded slandering like that could be subject to legal prosecution (especially if it came from another woman).
  • 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?