Nicholas (Paul Bettany) is cold, figuratively and literally. He washes his newly shorn head with icy river water, his breath visible and his blue eyes pale as the graying sky behind him. Shivering and frightened, he’s also on the run. Stylishly cryptic flashbacks indicate why he’s in this state: a priest in 14th-century rural England, he’s done wrong by his parishioners, having bedded one of the lush young girls in a barn, where the lovers were discovered, in flagrante delicto, by a large man.
At the start of Paul McGuigan’s The Reckoning, Nicholas is utterly alone. Looking over his shoulder even as he contemplates suicide, he takes a breath. Still regarding himself as a man of God, his sinfulness and banishment notwithstanding, he can’t quite bring himself to do it. And then, he finds a sort of redemption, whether by accident or God’s will, when he meets a troupe of players. They’ve been making their way by performing Bible stories — Cain and Abel, the Crucifixion — for various village populations. Recently, their audiences have been increasingly distracted and uninterested, at least in part because their own lives have become increasingly complicated.
Nicholas’ eagerness to be adopted into the group leaves them immediately suspicious: they’ve got a pattern of performance and particular roles assigned, and he’ll just gum up their works. Or so they believe. Adapted by Mark Mills from Barry Unsworth’s novel, Morality Play, the movie focuses on the ways that faith can be overwhelmed by circumstance and deliberate deception. From the start, the relationship between Nicholas and the players is fraught with distrust and mistaken apprehension. He first comes on them just as their leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), appears to be murdering his own father, a mercy killing enacted as awful ritual by firelight, with Martin dressed in a costume that gives him bizarre breasts (women not being allowed to perform on stage, the troupe maintains this costume and a wig for the man who plays all female roles).
Taken aback, Nicholas makes up a story to explain his bad timing, then asks for admittance into the group (as Martin himself observes, traveling alone “in these times” is dangerous). While the others — including the outspoken Tobias (Brian Cox) — dislike this obvious liar straight away, Martin and his sister Sarah (Gina McKee), take different kinds of shines to the interloper — he’s looking to secure a friendly voter when matters for the troupe are put to “democratic” tests, and she’s intrigued by Nicholas’ obvious differences from the men she travels with, his apparent education and delicacy (when he claims he’s a farmer, she checks his soft hands). More than that, she appreciates, even as she distrusts, his mystery.
All agree, grudgingly, to bring Nicholas along, whereupon the players’ internal balance of power shifts. It’s not long before he confesses his crime (part of it, anyway, hanging on to his “mystery” just a bit longer, though you won’t be hard pressed to guess the rest), at the same time that they come upon another crime in a town where they’ve just arrived. A local healer, Martha (Elvira Minguez), is accused of murdering a young boy. As she is mute, she has no means to make a defense, though she insists on her innocence, in particular when she is interviewed by Martin and Nicholas, who visit her in prison in order to gather information for their new production, a play based on the local murder.
When the troupe initially proposes the play — “The Murder Of Thomas Wells” — as a means to garner an audience (and profits), they are plainly running up against tradition (the repetition of known plots, pantomimed as Martin narrates). Their rehearsal and costume preparation provide The Reckoning‘s strangest moments, a montage sequence that takes on tres moderne visual aspects, brief, stylized tableaux that recall R.E.M. and Tarsem’s music video for “Losing My Religion.” (Even more striking and strange, as Martin warms up, Dafoe demonstrates his singular torso and yoga poses, remarkably bent and contorted.)
Even more disturbing, they are performing a kind of newsworthy “truth.” Though they believe Martha’s version (why is unclear), they still go on with the plot as the town’s legal processes have deemed it — she’s the evil seductress who kills the boy, alone in the woods, for the purse he’s toting for his mother. The performance results in drama among the viewers, however, and so Nicholas — intrepid and driven by his own personal guilt — undertakes to find out what “really happened.” Call him the first tabloid reporter, utterly invested in public opinion even as he openly brooks the established power structure.
Opposing Nicholas’ investigation — which takes all kinds of yucky turns, having to do with cemeteries, plague, and child abuse — is the local feudal fop, Lord Robert De Guise (Vincent Cassel, who played another version of this villain in Brotherhood of the Wolf). Protected by his own priest on a payroll, Father Damian (Ewen Bremner), as well as his looming-on-horseback palace guards, De Guise feels invulnerable to charges against his authority (as this is represented in the verdict against Martha). And so, he resents even the hint of a question, which means that Nicholas is a nuisance.
Nicholas finds more trouble as well as potential support in an emissary from the king, engaged in a parallel investigation of nefarious goings-on. As the players’ performance challenges the official “truth,” The Reckoning raises significant questions concerning how news and history are shaped by those with the power to name them. As the dead boy’s mother collapses in horror on seeing her child’s murder enacted (twice) and the audience surges with excitement, the play takes on its own immediacy and reality. Disappointingly, The Reckoning lapses into near-farcical sensationalism, undermining the truth of its fictions.