It’s ironic that at this very moment—when the devout are lining up like medieval penitents for two hours of self-flagellation led by Saint Mel, patron of martyrs—along comes another film about medieval people behaving in a particularly modern way. It features no sexy dead languages, and will inspire the wrath of no one, so you won’t hear about it on talk radio or morning television. The Reckoning is, in fact, in its tidy, subtle introspection, an antidote to a mass media event turned into mass hysteria. Not only does it directly challenge the ultimate authorities that intimidate the masses into passive obedience, but it shows its characters coming to a new way of seeing the world, one that feels thoroughly contemporary, and not especially medieval at all.
Its very modernity, in a further burst of irony, is the thing most likely to turn audiences off British director Paul McGuigan’s adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s novel Morality Play—though it is, of course, the very aspect that makes it so intriguing. It feels, oddly enough, like nothing so much as a medieval episode of Law and Order. And while I always feel that one simply cannot get too much Law & Order, I realize that not everyone feels that way.
Here, the role of the nice Catholic cop Chris Noth played in the series will be performed by Paul Bettany, as Nicholas, a 14th-century priest who’s on the run from his little English village for reasons that will be revealed in the third act. He stumbles into a troupe of players led by Lenny Briscoe—I mean Martin (Willem Dafoe)—who gets lots of unwanted advice from Brian Cox in the Lieutenant Anita Van Buren role. The actors travel the countryside, earning silver pennies by dramatizing Bible stories, the only plays anyone had even thought to perform at the time.
It’s a detective story that falls out in the course of events, a murder mystery in the small, squalid, muddy village they pull into. A young boy has been killed, apparently at the hands of the town mute and crazy lady Martha (Elvira Minguez), in a crime that has shocked the villagers. Startled by the morality-play aspects of the crime—the details, which include the boy literally being led astray from a clear and safe path, seem ready-made for a cautionary tale about sin and punishment—Martin decides that his troupe should perform the boy’s story rather than a story from the Bible. But as Nicholas and Martin try to suss out the details from the townsfolk, nothing quite adds up, and they find themselves unraveling a web of lies woven by the local noble (Vincent Cassel) and blindly accepted by the willfully deluded peasants.
It’s tempting for the reflexively sardonic moviegoer to keep extending that Law & Order metaphor. Here’s Matthew MacFadyen as Jack McCoy, “King’s Justice,” an emissary from the monarch on the scene, his very presence hinting at something even more nefarious and more widespread than the murder of one peasant child. But The Reckoning does not, after all, clip along like a contemporary crime thriller. At its root, it’s about getting to the way of thinking that allows us to have crime thrillers at all: rational, systematic, logical, almost scientific. Martin and Nicholas are trailblazers of modern pragmatism, dragging the other players along as they stumble into a system of perception that has more to do with accepting the evidence of one’s own eyes than blindly believing what priests or noblemen insist is true.
The Reckoning is, rather thrillingly, about the power of art not only to reveal the truth but to help those unwilling to believe it finally accept it. It’s also about a way of finding the truth of a matter that still seems to elude so many people today. Its disdain for bowing to superstition and authority is hardly a new theme, true, but placed in this context—when the powerful held the weak in a stranglehold or not at all—it feels fresh. And given the fact that so many people still seem willing to give those in charge too much benefit of the doubt, it’s startlingly relevant.