Laura Clifford Robin CliffordIn 1380 England, a priest, Nicholas (Paul Bettany, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), flees into the countryside, sheers off his hair and drops his vestments into a river. He comes across an acing troupe whose master player, Martin (Willem Dafoe, "Auto Focus"), decides to trust him and lets him join despite protests. When the troupe reaches a village in the shadow of the castle of Robert de Guise (Vincent Cassel, "Irreversible"), a woman, Martha (Elvira Minguez, "The Dancer Upstairs"), is being sentenced to death for the murder of a young boy. Martin's decision to dispense with the biblical reenactments of the day to stage this immediate, relevant tale leads Nicholas on a path towards redemption in "The Reckoning."
A murder mystery becomes the catalyst for a showdown between truth and art, but while both triumph in the end, there is no mystery to the murder. Director Paul McGuigan ("Gangster No. 1") ironically makes artistic choices which help reveal the truth too soon.
Early flashbacks give us flashes of Nicholas's past as a priest. He tells his congregation that 'This life has to be harsh to prevent earthly happiness from being loved too much' but does not practice what he preaches, bedding down a local, married woman. It is this shame, and perhaps more, that he is fleeing. Nicholas first spies Martin and company apparently murdering an old man by a fire. He's chased down by a devil, who turns out to be Tobias (Brian Cox, "X2"), an actor in a mask. The murder was really the begged-for mercy killing of Brendan, Martin and Sarah's (Gina McKee, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood") cancer-ridden father.
In the village, when the troupe don't earn enough after their Adam and Eve play to give Brendan a Christian burial, Nicholas admits his past and performs the service, utilizing the same grave that had been dug for young Thomas Wells, earning the thanks of the entire group.
Martin tells the troupe they need the services of a cartwright and suggest they present the story of the murdered boy, a modern form of play, to raise the funds. Supported by Nicholas, the duo visit Martha in her cell and are shocked when the deaf mute woman pantomimes to them that it was the monk, Simon Damiam (Ewen Bremner, "The Rundown"), who killed the child and set her up. Martin overrules Nicholas and they present the play as known to the town, but public outcry presents them with new information (and, it is learned, Martin told a lie to present his untruth - the carriage axle was not broken). The play's next, radically revised presentation sparks a rebellion.
Bettany gives a fired up performance as the fallen priest hell bent on saving an innocent, but it would become wearying if not for the intriguing chemistry with Dafoe. The push and pull of the men's differing motivations sparks this film's flickering flame. McKee is also good portraying the second class citizenship of a woman within an acting troupe (men played female roles until well into the seventeenth century and beyond) who is attracted to the stranger in their midst. Cox has presence, but little to do outside of applying makeup and the rest of the troupe barely register. Matthew MacFadyen ("Enigma") has an imperious approachability as the King's Justice, but Cassel recycles former villains as de Guise.
"The Reckoning" is largely notable for its production design (Andrew McAlpine, "The Beach"), art direction, costuming and makeup, which, like 1982's "The Return of Martin Guerre," steep us in unglorified medieval times. An abandoned Spanish gold mine substitutes for the English village, which was then set within a matte framework, but a late shot of the castle ablaze in the distance is unconvincing.
McGuigan occasionally breaks illusion with arty jump cuts to cinematographer Peter Sova's ("Gangster No. 1") eerie observations of Dafoe contorting his semi-nude body or Cox transforming himself into a devil while staring into a fisheye lens, but the images are not anchored to the film's themes.
Robin did not see this film.
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