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The Reckoning
cast: Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Brian Cox, Gina McKee, and Ewan Bremner

director: Paul McGuigan

109 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
EV DVD Region 2 rental or retail
Also available to rent or buy on video
[released 27 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Renaissance Films is the company but a renaissance it proved not to be as the films announced for the millennium crawled out in ignominious fashion one (Disco Pigs) after another (The Safety Of Objects) with limited theatrical release, if that at all, and if the critics were in a good mood, something positive to accompany and point you to the cinema or video store. The Reckoning, a Paul McGuigan film, was originally prospectively dangled before us as 'Morality Play', coming from the novel by Barry Unsworth, adapted here by Mark Mills. How on earth can a film by the director of Gangster No.1 with production values like this, which essentially does nothing terribly wrong, be reduced to a quiet slithering in and out of select cinemas, hateful reviews and a final sly dropping onto DVD rental? That is the first question one must ask. No faith in medieval murder mysteries? Had their fill of Cadfael, had they, the audience, someone decided? Did the critics reprove it for not having a more complex tale to tell? For this is admittedly an uncomplicated plot rolling merrily on towards a flip of a coin conclusion. Are we so spoilt with the ingenious, the twisting and the arduously rewarding that they can't make room for the occasional guilty pleasure. I'm searching for something appallingly mishandled in The Reckoning but apart from the change of title and the mystery-lite angle, I can't find anything to punish it for significantly. There is good to be reaped from this film, a brave shift in subject for a director who could have gone for something gangster or contemporary following on the critical success of his previous outing.

England 1380 and Nicholas (Paul Bettany) is a priest on the run following an incident involving a woman in his congregation. He hooks up with a travelling acting troupe as they put their Master Player out of his cankerous misery, the, quite literal, coat of arms of the company passed on to Martin (Willem Dafoe). They are booked for a town, "A Christmas gift from one noble family to another," but upstaged by a murder that is to see a deaf and dumb beauty, Martina (Elvira Minguez) hung and drawn, accused of and condemned for the strangulation of a boy in the woods. Desperate to bury their dead player and the local priest asking for three times their first evening's takings to conduct the burial, Nicholas admits his ecclesiastical training and oversees it himself, the body interred that night on top of the murdered boy and taking advantage of the freshly turned earth. Martin is hungry to re-energise the acting profession by taking it away from the biblical retellings that are no longer drawing the crowds and replace the divine with the human, a route that troubles company veterans like Tobias (Brian Cox). But with Nicholas securing the argument in favour of a re-enactment of the local crime, it's all god's will after all, the troupe have a morning to research (in other words detect) and set up the performance. Nicholas is convinced that Martina is innocent but they have not the position or voice to do anything about it, or so they believe. The play-let is initially appalling to a genuine crowded space this time, but the horrible fascination soon begets them, elements played for laughs with no consideration for the distraught parents, here portrayed as comic figures; there is no precedence for behaviour after all at such a performance, they are the first living humans portrayed on stage.

Then something amazing and unexpected happens. The details of the re-enactment are put into question by the family and audience; the dead boy would not leave with a stranger, they argue, but the troupe argue back, the girl could not have borne a boy of his size over the distance if she killed him on his expected path. It emerges that other boys have vanished, clearly a murderous paedophile has been busy, and the chief suspects are a Benedictine monk, Simon Damian (Ewen Bremner) and the presiding Lord de Grise (Vincent Cassel). More discrepancies arise, but the sheriff and his men drive the troupe out of town only for, first, Nicholas and, then, Martin to return to attempt the delivery of some justice and the rescue of Martina from the rope.

There is a great idea here, interest is maintained by story alone, but superior and equal care has been given to many elements from the casting to the photography, and from design to construction. It is grotty and beautiful at once and the town in which most of the story unfurls was a costly set built with Spanish labour in the Andalusian hills of Rodalquilar, of awesome construction and quite splendid. It is as real and lived-in as any of Robert Altman's famous communities, everyone with a profession and authentic threads (costumes designed by Yvonne Blake and surely supported by a much larger creative team) and unwashed, sometimes grotesque, countenance (veteran make up artiste Sarah Monzani, who worked on The Bride, and hair design by Simon Thompson). The cinematography of Peter Sova ASC is pristine, picking up every natural glory, from the spumes of the river and the frosted fronds, to the piggy pink of an eye washed in chilly waters, and honouring the incredible details intricately and proudly engraved or woven into this convincing world (production designer, Andrew McAlpine), as rewarding a transport to as that of 18th century Amsterdam in The Girl With The Pearl Earring. Hey, but Paul, do you mean in your review to mention everyone? Well, hey, they deserve to be mentioned.

Of acting note, there is a healthy supporting cast with Matthew MacFadyen cutting a dash in leather apparel as the Kings Justice conducting his own hampered investigation into the crimes. Gina McKee is in an unrewarding role as the troupe's costumier, looking fantastic, if a man is allowed to still judge her so since some bastard pointed out a resemblance to Hugh Grant. If you miss your character actors of yore, this film reminds you that there is a good stock of them still with Tom Georgeson, James Cosmo, Heathcote Williams (I speak too soon, he's gone too) and Niall Buggy appear in fleeting roles, with Simon Pegg a comedy relief gaoler. The remainder of Martin's troupe is made up with yet more talent in Tom Hardy, George Wells and Simon McBurnley, while local Spanish performers also fill the role call to perfection.

The film brings the age in neatly despite being shot in two countries, with English locations supplied by, amongst others, Hedingham Castle in Essex, the National Trust's Ashridge Estate and St Mary's Church, Edlesborough. This film has been hard done by critically. If there were a way of rectifying it, beyond an occasional lowly review like this, I would support it. In the run-up to the release any film with this standard of design and cinematographer would be as well as to tour the images reproduced large in whatever spaces could be provided, like fucking great front of house stills. When so much as been put into a film in its production it makes sod all sense hoping it will glide home on a fluke wind. Hassle your local 'film' societies to include it in the season's DVD programming. Complain to the idiots that be. See this film and appreciate the appreciable lot and loads in it. It's not a masterpiece but it is a thing of beauty.
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