March 2, 2004 > The Reckoning
Director: Paul McGuigarated R / 110 minutes (English)
by Christopher Cobb
While few contemporary dramas use medieval Europe as a backdrop, "The Reckoning," opening March 5, does little else to distinguish itself from anything else you might find on humdrum TV mystery programs.
Set near the end of the Great Plague, the film follows on-the-run priest Nicholas (Paul Bettany, who impressed audiences as Russell Crowe's invisible roommate in 2001's "A Beautiful Mind"), as he stumbles across a troupe of actors who perform stories from the bible. Convincing them he too can act, Nicholas joins and they end up in a town where a woman has just been condemned to hang for murdering a local boy.
While Nicholas attempts to bury his past, Martin's odd decisions (even with the help of masterful actor Willem Dafoe) remain murky. So when he decides that the troupe must perform a morality play based on the recent murder, the film audience too is taken aback. No one appears to have the courage or common sense to ask, "Would a town that has just dealt with this pain enjoy it played out in front of them again?"
Of course, the issue is confused when it becomes clear to the troupe that the murderess is most likely innocent, and the rest of the film deals with their attempt to uncover the truth. While on paper this may appear an enticing mystery (and the source material, Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play is probably marvelous), the journey and payoff leave much to be desired.
With heavy hitting Bettany, Dafoe, and fellow actor Tobias (an underused Brian Cox), one simply expects more. However, it appears that director Paul McGuigan spent more time thinking about innovative shots than rising action and narrative flow. Sometimes the tight structural feel of a book doesn't translate to film. Because of this, the plot twists leading to and including the confrontation at the end of the film feel overdramatic and even unwarranted.
There are positive points. The way McGuigan shoots the actors in preparation for their performances is engaging, and his use of color in the film in general is excellent. Costumes and set design ring with authenticity.
If you're in the mood for medieval, check out Bettany in 2001's off-beat "A Knight's Tale" where he plays a young, aspiring Geoffrey Chaucer. While there is a layer of camp, at least it's intentional.