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Review: The Reckoning

Throughout, Paul McGuigan paints around the narrative substance with vacant symbolism.

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The Reckoning
Photo: Paramount Classics

Approaching Baz Luhrmann status in the wasteland of stylistic braggadocio, Paul McGuigan evidently never envisioned a dramatic overhead or 360-degree pan that he didn’t immortalize on celluloid as fast as he could. His obnoxion cripples the possibility of depth or intrigue in The Reckoning, a slender morality tale set in rural 14th-century England that’ been adapted from a novel called, natch, Morality Play.

The film opens on a deserter priest (Paul Bettany) washing himself in a creek—presumably, of cardinal sins. He meets up with a surly band of traveling actors and convinces them to bring him on board as an understudy. Tired of pantomiming stock bibilical material in front of unresponsive villagers (“Oh please, please, not the crucifixion!” protests one gruff trouper, as if he were living in 2004), the company’s head (Willem Dafoe) resolves to alter the text.

The acting troupe breaks tradition and performs the real-life drama of the town’s celebrity murderess, a deaf-mute sentenced to hang for the strangulation of a local boy. But the players increasingly begin to believe that the woman is innocent, and the true culpability could reach as high as that red-cloaked feudal master (Vincent Cassel…who else?) in the castle window.

The Reckoning’s religious thematics could be spanned in half the time on any given episode of the Cadfael series starring Derek Jacobi (or HBO’s Carnivàle, for that matter), which is a consequence of McGuigan’s lack of confidence. The filmmaker paints around the narrative substance with vacant symbolism. Production designer Andrew McAlpine deserves recognition for building an authentic medieval town from scratch in Spain, but McGuigan shoots it like an amusement park—every mud pile and thatched house is gawked at like a mermaid. And the climactic theological argument between good and evil is a windbag affair, made purposely disjointed by the film’s rapid editing and ever-slithering camera.

Fortunately, Dafoe applies his usual mercurial intensity, despite a vague accent and Shatner-esque lines like “For heaven’s sake, man, we’re actors not judges!” And Bettany, whose non-contemporary face projects flinty moral awareness, adds grace notes to his characterization. (Gina McKee, the heartbreaker from Croupier and Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland, is wasted as a spinster looking to see under Bettany’s cloth.) It’s worth noting that The Reckoning has been collecting dust for a small eternity, as Bill Clinton was still president when production wrapped. McGuigan may have tempered his show-off inclinations in the interim. But, just in case, a word of advice to studio bosses: Don’t let him touch a musical.

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Paul Bettany, Gina McKee, Brian Cox, Elvira Minguez, Ewen Bremmer, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, Vincent Cassel Director: Paul McGuigan Screenwriter: Mark Mills Distributor: Paramount Classics Running Time: 110 min Rating: R Year: 2004 Buy: Video, Book

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