Combustible Celluloid
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With: Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Gina McKee, Brian Cox, Vincent Cassel, Simon Pegg
Written by: Mark Mills, from a novel by Barry Unsworth
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and violent images
Running Time: -99
Date: 08/06/2003

The Reckoning (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Play's the Thing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Set all the way back in the 14th century, the new movie The Reckoning nevertheless raises some rather modern topics.

Caught in the throes of passion with another man's wife, a 14th century priest, Nicholas (Paul Bettany), shaves his head, dumps his frock and flees. He runs smack into a group of traveling actors and joins their number. At the next village, they unload and prepare to perform their old standby, "Adam and Eve," which hasn't exactly been packing them in. The townspeople's minds are on another matter. A local woman, a healer, has been accused of murdering a young boy and will be hung.

The actors' leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), has an idea, which goes a long way in explaining the success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Blood and guts sell better. They quickly research the crime and stage the events as they see them. Their box office take increases, but they soon realize that the corruption goes much deeper.

Director Paul McGuigan, who so far has specialized in ultra-cool, ultra-modern flicks like The Acid House and Gangster No. 1, immerses himself almost completely in crude, muddy 14th century life, save for a few present-day editing techniques that jar the action from time to time. Based on Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play, he and screenwriter Mark Mills avoid the usual Sherlock Holmes method of crime-solving. These sleuths are rank amateurs and find their clues only by stumbling across them or forcing them into the open, regardless of the damage done.

Mills and McGuigan have tried to anticipate the thinking of a people who have not yet been jaded by too much media. When the townspeople see their tragedy enacted in front of them, it's as if they've just seen it on the news or read it in the newspaper; it reinforces the events and makes them more real. It's an exciting sequence, complete with the first angry cries from "viewers" who insist, "It didn't happen like that."

The pasty, yet tall and striking, Bettany may be one of our best young actors, capable of playing a great range of parts. He cleverly pulled off a fun Geoffrey Chaucer in Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale as well as the vicious title character in McGuigan's Gangster No. 1. And the always-great Dafoe summons an intensity here for an otherwise middling role (he even performs a couple of jaw-dropping yoga positions). In addition, McGuigan has assembled a great collection of thespians for his traveling band of actors, including Brian Cox (the original Hannibal in Manhunter) and the lovely, heavy-lidded Gina McKee, best known as Hugh Grant's wheelchair-bound friend in Notting Hill. (Since women weren't allowed to perform, she helps apply the costumes and makeup.)

The film's ending, and the capturing of the true culprit, naturally comes with a kind of anticlimax. The reveal doesn't pack much of a surprise, but the movie instead raises larger questions. Who decides what's good or bad and the degrees thereof? Sure, The Reckoning could have played more with these many fascinating themes, but just the fact of it planting those seeds makes it a challenging and thought-provoking film and a welcome relief to a dry season.

DVD Details: Another good film that was overlooked in theaters, Paramount's new DVD should offer viewers a decent chance to catch up with it. Plus it should play very well on the small screen. The DVD scrimps on extras, though. It comes with only a trailer, optional English subtitles and a choice between 5.1 Surround and Dolby Surround.

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