Film

The medieval dead

14th-century
actors solve a murder in plodding The Reckoning

Director Paul McGuigan’s previous two films were the unwatchable
Irvine Welsh adaptation The Acid House and the ultraviolent British crime
saga Gangster No. 1, both of them notable for their flashy editing and
photography and a curious fascination with characters eating bodily waste.
Neither of these traits made him an obvious candidate to direct
The Reckoning, an offbeat murder mystery set in
14th-century England, but McGuigan has plunged headlong into the project
anyway. There’s no waste-eating this time around, although the world
the film presents is pretty unhygienic what with the bubonic plague on the
loose, but McGuigan’s taste for flashy edits and overhead camera angles
is on full display, no matter how inappropriate these techniques may be to
the story’s medieval setting.

Paul Bettany (who made this film years ago, long before he came to fame
acting opposite Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander)
stars as a priest named Nicholas who falls in with a troupe of traveling
actors while he’s on the run from his home village, where he’s
disgraced himself by sleeping with a married woman from his congregation. A
couple of the actors, including a grouchy old trooper played by the great
Brian Cox, distrust Nicholas at first sight, but Martin (Willem Dafoe), the
troupe leader, takes a shine to him and invites him to join their ranks.
(Perhaps Dafoe simply likes having someone around whose cheekbones are even
more astonishingly chiseled than his are.)

The troupe has fallen on hard times—as they moan about how people
would rather see the more spectacular mystery plays being mounted in places
like Wakefield, they’re like indie filmmakers complaining that
audiences only want to see the latest Matrix sequel. But Martin hatches a
radical new idea when the troupe winds up in a small town still abuzz over
the scandalous recent slaying of a young boy, apparently at the hands of a
deaf-mute woman: why not, instead of doing another of their tired
dramatizations of stories from the Bible, stage a new play about the
boy’s murder? The play is a hit, but as Nicholas and Martin begin
researching the play—without so much as a single AFA grant!—they
begin to suspect that the deaf-mute woman is innocent and that the real
murderer is still at large. Hey, maybe he’s that sinister nobleman who
keeps scowling down at them from the castle in the centre of town! You know,
the one played by Vincent Cassel?

The Reckoning is a strange movie in that it unfolds within a fascinating
milieu and yet somehow manages to be completely uninvolving. A big part of
the problem is McGuigan’s cold, inexpressive direction, which never
takes you inside the characters’ emotions. His camera looks at his
characters instead of inside them. Nicholas’s struggle with his faith,
Martin’s growing respect for this new member of his company, the
attitude of the townspeople toward these theatrical interlopers (and vice
versa)—none of it comes alive. McGuigan misses a big opportunity as
well with the character of Sarah (Gina McKee), Martin’s sister, who is
forbidden from appearing onstage or voting on troupe business matters.
She’s attracted to Nicholas as well, but this subplot is basically
reduced to a series of significant glances.

I also wished McGuigan and screenwriter Mark Mills (who based the film on
Barry Unsworth’s 1995 novel Morality Play) had made the effort to weave
more information about the inner workings of medieval theatre into their
script—I’d love to know how these scripts were created, what
ingredients went into the actors’ makeup, what stage conventions they
had to deal with, all that kind of stuff. But The Reckoning seems more
interested in telling a plodding detective story than exploring its setting
(brought vividly to life by production designer Andrew McAlpine, who also
designed The Piano). But if nothing else, The Reckoning makes you nostalgic
for a time when audiences were actually getting bored with re-enactments of
Christ’s crucifixion. These days, people apparently can’t get
enough of it—can a wave of post-Passion high-tech mystery plays be far
behind? V

The Reckoning Directed by Paul McGuigan • Written by
Mark Mills • Starring Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe and Brian Cox •
Opens soon

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