- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

“The Reckoning” is gussied up in period dress and grad school musings on the birth of secular/realist dramaturgy, but really it’s a game of medieval “Clue.”

Set in 14th-century England, Paul McGuigan’s adaptation of novelist Barry Unsworth’s “Morality Play,” itself a tweaking of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” follows a troupe of itinerant actors who stage rote biblical plays into a country village, where unsolved murder mysteries and pandemic disease await.

When first glimpsed by Paul Bettany’s Nicholas, a disgraced priest on the lam, the players are engaged in what looks like a backwoods human sacrifice.

A mercy killing, it turns out, but a tone-setting moment in a movie that whimsically toggles between themes of bubonic plague, sodomy and witchcraft.

Nicholas, fearing the wrath of his congregants — adultery is the apparent offense, but the film hints at worse — wangles his way into a troupe headed by the charismatic Martin (Willem Dafoe in an on-and-off accent).

When they arrive in the castle-guarded outpost of “The Reckoning,” the townsfolk are chattering about the imminent hanging of a deaf-mute faith healer accused of strangling a young boy.

His murder, the latest in a series of boy-killings, is heavy on folks’ minds when the troupe’s summer-stocky fall-from-Eden play flops.

The lukewarm reception sparks a brainstorm in Martin: Why not give Genesis a rest and dramatize the story of the murder? Why not rip from the headlines, as it were?

Tobias’ (Brian Cox) objections are meant to indicate the idea of extra-biblical entertainment was a radically dicey proposition in medieval Christendom.

But Martin and Nicholas quickly adapt to the new paradigm of naturalism.

Their first task: Stop the execution. No problem.

Then they begin canvassing the villagers like Columbos in cloaks. They research their creation like Upton Sinclair sleuthing the horrors of Chicago’s stockyards. What they uncover are the contours of the secret life of the Lord de Guise (Vincent Cassel), the Norman baron who rules over the town. The de Guise character is an underdeveloped caricature: the swishy Frenchman, the psychopath homosexual.

Working from Mark Mills’ script, Mr. McGuigan hangs “The Reckoning” on Mr. Bettany’s Nicholas, who homes in on in the case in the hope of exorcising his own demons.

Mr. Bettany (late of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) does the tormented soul thing well.

And yet, in the movie’s play-within-a-play climax, he’s reduced to “Col. Mustard did it with the candlestick in the conservatory” detective slapstick.

“The Reckoning” is a handsomely grubby re-creation of England in the Middle Ages, but its plot tears herkily-jerkily from one idea to the next.

It takes a quickly aborted stab at romance between Martin’s sister (the mishandled Gina McKee) and Nicholas and then lurches into lightheaded cogitations on church-state relations.

Halfheartedly, it claims for art the highest of vocations: the telling of truth and the transmission of morality.

Try telling that to 21st century Hollywood.

**

TITLE: “The Reckoning”

RATING: R (Sexuality; violent imagery)

CREDITS: Directed by Paul McGuigan. Produced by Caroline Wood. Screenplay by Mark Mills, based on Barry Unsworth’s novel, “Morality Play.” Cinematography by Peter Sova. Music by Mark Mancina.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www.paramountclas-sics.com/reckoning/index.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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