Medieval mystery tour

The Reckoning

Not exactly <i>Masterpiece Theatre</i>: Martin, played by veteran actor Willem Dafoe, leads a troupe of 14th-century English actors into serious weirdness in the medieval thriller <i>The Reckoning</i>.

Not exactly Masterpiece Theatre: Martin, played by veteran actor Willem Dafoe, leads a troupe of 14th-century English actors into serious weirdness in the medieval thriller The Reckoning.

Rated 4.0

Living in 14th-century England certainly was no picnic for the ordinary citizen. The pandemic and usually fatal black plague struck with tell-tale skin splotches, chills, fever, diarrhea, vomiting and inflamed lymphatic glands, killing millions of people and inflaming fears that the end of the world was actually at hand. Perpetual war left the countryside littered with widows and orphans. Brutal Norman barons ruled the land. Poverty and crime were rampant. The church and state were wrapped in an unholy authoritarian alliance. Most noblemen, knights in armor and fair maidens were not known as philanthropists, and Monte Carlo-night fund-raising had yet to be implemented.

The Reckoning is a gripping, revelatory medieval murder mystery and much, much more that vividly slithers into this chaos that was 1380 Britain. Young priest Nicholas (Paul Bettany) flees his wintry village in shame after succumbing to passions of the flesh. He crosses paths with a group of actors who are wearing their stage costumes to keep warm. The troupe is split on whether to allow Nicolas into its inner circle, but leader Martin (Willem Dafoe) casts the pivotal assenting vote, and off they go to their next performance.

A fallen bridge forces the group down an unfamiliar road to an ominous walled town at the foot of a towering castle. They arrive as a woman (Elvira Mínguez) is being sentenced to death for the strangulation and robbery of a young boy. After a series of events best left for viewers to discover on their own, Martin has a revolutionary idea. He suggests the initiation of a new art form. He wants to deviate from the accepted custom of performing only strictly adhered-to Bible tales (called plays of “mysteries and miracles”) to telling the story of the recent murder as the townsfolk know it. It’s a decision, this time with Nicholas casting the deciding vote to proceed, that eventually enrages the troupe’s audience and leads to an exposure of even darker transgressions and a battle between conscience, self-preservation, good and evil.

The Reckoning is a multilayered snapshot of a decayed and disintegrating feudal system that richly develops themes and characters with an eerie modern resonance. The story, adapted from Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play, explores the elusiveness of justice, the face of pure evil, the depth of corruption, the courage of conviction and the power of art. It speaks to us about both social and personal change, euthanasia, serial murder, virtue, vice, guilt, redemption and the manipulation of mobs and even democracy in the name of secret agendas. And it has both the bite and jarring impact of a finely honed broadsword.

Director Paul McGuigan made his feature debut with 1998’s The Acid House, a deplorable stream of deviance and drug use based on three short stories from Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. He somewhat redeemed himself with 2000’s moody, chilling Gangster Number 1 (with Bettany in flashbacks playing the part of young mobster Malcolm McDowell). Here, he erupts as a visionary able to inject naturalistic historical drama with elements of an intense contemporary thriller. He wields stunning landscapes and locales like supporting characters and uses hand-held camera work to compelling rather than flashy effect.

The acting is excellent. Bettany and Dafoe, a co-founder of Manhattan’s experimental Wooster Group, are consummate stage actors who breathe an infectious exhilaration into the film’s theatrical envelope-pushing, backstage components and intertwined detective work. They seem both credible and bigger than life as men of disparate pasts who unite in a search for truth in which even those who seek justice can fall prey to it.

The Reckoning is a film in which one man—who earns, first, the thanks and then the friendship of others inadvertently—by mere association, forces his new companions to carry his dark secret, too. It is a provocative film about religion and faith that asks what kind of god inflicts his servants with so much suffering and shows how humans are drawn to the very forbidden fruit of which they are warned. And, rather ironically, it wonders if art can reveal and make a difference in the world without doing any chest pounding of its own.