If someone had told me Scottish director Paul McGuigan’s next film after the ultraviolent bloodbath Gangster No. 1
would be a contemplative period piece about a traveling troupe of actors in medieval England who stumble upon a mysterious murder in one of the towns they pass through and end up single-handedly inventing the morality play, I’d have said, yes, but what’s it about
? McGuigan’s wonderfully ambitious but terribly melodramatic film is chock-full of symbolic references, subtext, and the sort of period detail that made Monty Python’s historical comedies so gamely endearing. Based on the book Morality Play
by Barry Unsworth, The Reckoning
commences with A Beautiful Mind
’s Bettany playing the fire-and-brimstone-and-freshly shorn Father Nicholas as he lights out for the forest, being in trouble with his flock thanks to some ill-advised extracurricular activities with a local married woman. He soon hooks up with the aforementioned actors, led by Dafoe’s Martin, who leads his troupe around the plague-ridden land performing Biblical plays that were already well past their sell-by date during Jesus’ lifetime. It’s not until they arrive on the outskirts of a village where a young boy has been recently killed and a mute woman (Minguez) sentenced to die for the crime that Martin has an epiphany. After visiting the accused and listening, via some rough-hewn sign language, he decides to scrap the troupe’s usual plays and instead embark on a wholly new form of theatre, one with the town’s own murder mystery at its very core. Who knew the birth of reality TV was really reality AD? Predictably, this brings all manner of governmental and Church-inspired pox down upon the hapless crew, who struggle to bring the story of the dead boy and his unseen killer to life and to justice. The Reckoning
’s chatty script, by Mark Mills from Unsworth’s novel, mines some especially fertile moral ground here, encompassing everything from the responsibility of the artist in society (and how far that artist should go before abandoning his supposed ideals in the face of the state) to the inherent unsuitability of religion and politics as bed partners in just about any day and age. As such, it manages some subtle (and often unsubtle) comments on current events – coming readily to mind are the poets turned away from the White House last year when it became apparent that some of them might use their position to speak out against U.S. foreign policy and the Iraq situation – that will give the viewer food for thought if the film’s languid pacing doesn’t nod them off beforehand. There are plenty of fine ideas working together here, but McGuigan’s film, despite a manic, live-wire performance from Bettany (who’s beginning to come off like Jude Law’s smarter brother) and a turn from Willem Dafoe that’s, well, very Dafoe-esque, feels as though it's droning on for most of the Dark Ages before the final act – enlightenment! Yes! – arrives. On the plus side there’s frequent Errol Morris cameraman Peter Sova’s sumptuous, woodsy cinematography, which gives the whole affair a nicely shaky, hand-held touch that mirrors the characters’ tenuous grasp of the situations they encounter. As an existential awakening into the light and triumph of rational thought over superstition, it’s an engaging film, but as a murder mystery it plods along as though weighted down by the heavens and more. Oh Brother Cadfael, where art thou?