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Paul Bettany gets medieval in The Reckoning.

Star turn: Send him back in time seven centuries, and - Willem Dafoe would fit right in.
  • Star turn: Send him back in time seven centuries, and Willem Dafoe would fit right in.

It's a bit unorthodox to ladle superlatives all over a film in the opening paragraph, but The Reckoning deserves them. Moving, gripping, and powerful, suspenseful, stylish, and literate, this exploration of justice and art may be set in 1390s England, but its resonance is fully relatable and significant today. This brilliant and unpretentious movie raises the bar for contemporary popular entertainment designed for the upper-tier thinkers at the multiplex. Who'd have thought that a film about passion, religion, and extreme violence could echo so meaningfully?

"This life simply has to be harsh," preaches young Father Nicholas (Paul Bettany) to his flock, "to stop earthly happiness being loved." It's a hard line, but it well establishes the theme at hand, even if Nicholas is no saint, succumbing to a bit of pleasure himself. Bedding the willing wife (Marian Aguilera) of a less-than-pleased member of the clergy (Trevor Steedman), Nicholas suddenly finds himself a hunted monk on the run . . . and thereby finds himself. Ditching his robes and fleeing into the harsh but unspeakably beautiful wilderness, he is at first terrorized by and then welcomed into a gaggle of itinerant actors led by the charismatic Martin (Willem Dafoe, in top form).

Road-weary and broke, with Martin's freshly dead father wrapped in his winding-sheet in their wagon, the troupe ventures into a sweeping digital matte shot that rivals anything in The Lord of the Rings. They proceed to enter a towering medieval village perched on a mountainside (kudos to Andrew McAlpine for his fantastic designs and to Spain for being fantastically designed), where Nicholas and the actors (including a superb Gina McKee and the ever-dependable Brian Cox) immediately learn of a local tragedy. Apparently a humble villager named Martha (Elvira Minguez) has strangled a local boy, and -- under the orders of the terribly irritating Lord de Guise (Vincent Cassel), who keeps (hint, hint, dramatists) washing his face -- she is sentenced to be hanged and drawn until dead.

Unfortunate, to say the least, but the players, needing cash for the consecrated burial of Martin's father, go about their business and stage a particularly colorful retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. (Much credit is due to actor Simon McBurney, of England's Theatre de Complicite, for staging the troupe's exciting works.) The village's response is lackluster and provides but a pittance; therefore, aware of the dwindling popularity of traveling Bible plays, Martin hatches a plan. He and Nicholas descend into the creepy gaol . . . er, jail, where Martin interviews the deaf, dumb, death-row Martha in order to stage a new play -- a morality play based on the alleged "facts" of the local murder. Consequences ensue.

Tidily, The Reckoning is based on the 1996 novel Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, but it's definitely concerned more with considering morality and justice than with shoving either down our throats. Director Paul McGuigan (the hotshot behind Gangster No. 1, a film woefully overlooked in the U.S.) and screenwriter Mark Mills (Global Heresy) hold a firm grip on the concepts and characters. It's as if they're fully conscious of offering up an amalgam of The Name of the Rose, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Black Robe, as well as old-fashioned American westerns -- but rather than dusting over the tracks of their cinematic forebears, they put the smartly combined elements on proud display.

There is little to fault about The Reckoning, but a couple of clinkers prove unfortunate. A minor one involves a montage of costumes rendered in too-loving homage to Tarsem Singh's "Losing My Religion" video for REM. Charming in theory, but even if the members of REM are still considered gods among hipsters in the British isles, the brief geek-out here proves only distracting. The movie's title (another coy REM reference) is adequate to illustrate fandom.

Significantly worse is that this otherwise sensational film stumbles through its denouement as if drunk. The plotting is functional, but there's a dramatic letdown that feels almost criminal in light of the compelling drama preceding it. Let's put it in six words: Vincent Cassel is a silly bore. The Gallic superstar (on a par with Ben Affleck) sucks the life out of the movie's closing minutes. The guy's about as daunting as a daisy, and his "Norman" accent is only good for yuks. For the imperious heavy, the producers could have done better casting the Swedish Chef.

Otherwise, the movie is aces. The atmosphere, extras, designs, pacing, score -- all excellent. Dafoe's physical prowess frequently steals the show, and when Cox wearily exclaims of their repertoire, "Oh please, please, not the crucifixion!" the knowing chuckle warms us up and welcomes us into their fold.

The movie definitely belongs to Bettany, though, and although he's played the naive knave before, his performance here -- often in ultra close-up -- has become masterful. When he flashes his crucifix like a badge, one senses in him the contemporary cop whose confused psyche trips up his line of duty. Moreover, evolving from parroting the words of a distant deity to discovering his own words and shouting the truth to the masses, his Nicholas becomes a prototype punk-rocker, a DIY guy in medieval guise. It's a standout performance as he discovers the incredible, world-altering value of telling it like it is, artfully.

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