'The Reckoning' (2003)

The play's the thing

The Reckoning

Director: Paul McGuigan
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Paul Bettany
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 2003
USDVD release date: 2014-03-18

The Reckoning begins with lovely, stylized, cold images of nature while Nicholas (Paul Bettany) shaves his head in a forest, drinks from a stream, and flashes back to his downfall from priesthood for sins of the flesh. After a terrifying encounter, he learns (again) that appearances are deceiving and takes up with a troupe of traveling players who perform "Mysteries" (Biblical plays) across the rural England of 1380.

They arrive at one village, dominated by the castle of the local lord (Vincent Cassel), just in time to witness a mute woman's conviction for strangling a boy. She's sentenced to hang. The troupe's leader (Willem Dafoe) wants to put on a new kind of play, one that dramatizes the local event. After arguing the morality of this, their investigation and production stirs up new evidence and lots of trouble, as we realize we're in yet another plot about a serial killer of children. This is apparently what we need to take our entertainment seriously nowadays.

Scripted by crime novelist Mark Mills from Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play, this medieval crime story (more a procedural than a whodunit) doesn't avoid the occasional nod to The Name of the Rose or The Seventh Seal (a passing witch-burning), nor should it. Nods aside, the setting and story are unusual and hold our attention. Everything about the troupe's method and performance is riveting, even bold, with the scenes of audience response especially catching something worthwhile. The basis of this idea may have been when Hamlet decided "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king".

The excellent cast includes Brian Cox, Tom Hardy, Gina McKee, and Simon McBurney among the traveling players, Elvira Minguez as the mute woman, Matthew Macfadyen as "the King's Justice" (who's supposed to be the official detective), and a good cameo for Simon Pegg as a callous jailer. Thanks to photographer Peter Sova and (I presume) a crew of digital processors, much of the film looks startlingly beautiful in a bleak way, with location shooting in Almeria and Andalucia, Spain, and in Wales. The score by Adrian Lee and Mark Mancina boasts a sweeping orchestral sound with "religious" choral work. Director Paul McGuigan (The Acid House ) deserves a lot of credit for orchestrating all this smooth, grimy beauty; he's more famous for modern crime movies and episodes of Sherlock.

Why isn't it totally satisfying? One minor reason is that the murder mystery itself doesn't try to be much of one, relying on standard tropes about the appetites of power. If it's derivative, at least it's evoking one of the sources of the serial-killer mystique, the medieval legend of Gilles de Rais (played, as some reviewers noted, by Cassel in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc ).

In theory, the last act counts as a "satisfying" ending. In practice, it reaches through philosophical confrontation toward gestures of Christlike sacrifice and something about the power of the people (not exactly revolution) in a manner that dampens what we'd probably prefer and feels anti-climactic. Perhaps this fault lies partly in the film, partly in ourselves. The new on-demand disc from Warner Archives is a straight reissue of the no-frills 2004 Paramount DVD. (For some reason, the reviews on the linking Amazon page belong to another movie.)

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