Movie Review: The Reckoning
By Robert K. Elder, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
"The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," wrote William Shakespeare in "Hamlet."
By having his father's murder reenacted on stage, Hamlet reasons that he can learn whether his uncle is guilty of the crime. Hamlet anticipates some indication of remorse from his uncle after seeing the truth of his actions spotlighted in public, and he gets it.
"The Reckoning," set in 14th century England and starring Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe, follows the same logic. A company of actors stumble upon a village that is mourning the tragic death of a young boy, and the company decides to stay in the village to retell the boy's tragedy on stage.
But the performance nearly starts a riot, as the actors learn that the official story of the boy's death (and the story of the woman condemned for his murder) is being used to hide secrets. The company might be the only thing standing between the accused woman and the hangman's noose.
Sharing religious, sexual and moral themes with Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1993 Sean Connery film "In the Name of the Rose," "The Reckoning" creates a similarly plague-filled kingdom of peril and prosecution. The grime-infested village serves as a reflection of its inhabitants' own dirty faces and, perhaps, souls. While director Paul McGuigan ("The Acid House") takes great pains to steep his audience in the physical reality of the world he creates, his story structure feels artificial and, at times, forced.
Taking refuge amongst the actors, disgraced priest Nicholas (Bettany) hides a sin greater than the adultery he's willing to admit. Sensing the weight of his sin, company member Sarah (Gina McKee) confronts him, saying, "As long as you are with us, you force us to carry it too."
This isn't the only time actors deliver dialogue that's too thematically heavy-handed, a bit too on-the-nose. Company leader Martin (Dafoe) initially campaigns to stop performing Biblical stories on stage, to bring more immediate narratives to the people because he believes that's how plays "will be done in the future."
But then, after such a clumsy proclamation, the same scene is redeemed when senior actor Tobias (Brian Cox) argues against the plan because, "God has not revealed to us the moral of the story. God hasn't given us this story to use."
Wobbly European accents aside, Cox and Dafoe deliver strong, versatile performances, and director McGuigan clearly loves showing off Dafoe's limber form. Bettany, too, has come into his own as a star, carrying a picture that requires a great deal of emotional range, book-ended by religious and moral guilt. It's not glamorous, Hollywood car-chase stuff, but a chance to show off true acting dynamics.
The notion that stories are the lies that tell the truth isn't new - even Shakespeare knew that - but the central conceit of "let's save lives by putting on a play" seems not only artificial, but also hollow.
Directed by Paul McGuigan; screenplay by Mark Mills; based on the novel "Morality Play" by Barry Unsworth; photographed by Peter Sova; production design by Andrew McAlpine; music by Adrian Lee, Mark Mancina; edited by Andrew Hulme; produced by Caroline Wood. A Paramount Classics release; opens Friday, March 12. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (some sexuality and violent images).
Nicholas - Paul Bettany
Martin - Willem Dafoe
Tobias - Brian Cox
Stephen - Simon McBurney
Sarah - Gina McKee