The Reckoning

The Reckoning, directed by Paul McGuigan, takes place in a small town in the north of England during the winter of 1380. Titles at the beginning note that the Norman conquest of 1066 over the Saxons was tyrannical, using the church to subdue the masses. (The nature of the tyranny was the introduction of feudalism, buttressed by a superior technology of warfare, to England. By 1380, a century or so after the legendary Robin Hood, the Norman line had been succeeded by the Plantagenets, and crusader Richard II was king until he was killed by his first cousin in 1399.) The economic conditions depicted in the film are desperate, so the population depends on the local noble for food and shelter. At the beginning of the film, a Catholic priest, Nicholas (played by Paul Bettany), is on the run from the law because a parishioner caught him having sex with his wife. When he spots a small band of persons camping out in the woods after dark, they are killing someone. After they catch him trying to hide, they tell him that they are itinerant entertainers, but they allow him to stay with them overnight even though he concocts a phony explanation for his hermitlike appearance from out of nowhere. In the morning, they head for a town to make some money and to bury their dead, the former troupe’s leader who had begged to be released from a painful illness, presumably the plague. Nicholas pleads to be accepted within their troupe, and they agree after a vote in which Martin (played by Willem Dafoe), the new troupe leader, is supported by two of the remaining four members. Upon arrival in the town (actually, Almería, Spain), they witness as deaf-mute Martha (played by Elvira Minguez) is found guilty of murdering the son of the town’s noble and is sentenced by the court to death by hanging. The next day, they put on an “Adam and Eve” theatrical performance, but they only receive donations summing to two schillings. When the town’s priest will only perform last rites for five schillings, Nicholas comes out of the closet to admit that he is a former priest who was defrocked when caught cuckolding a parishioner. Nicholas then performs the last rites. Still needing money, Martin decides to try something different–a play reenacting the recent murder, based on whatever information that they can collect from the accused and anyone else. In jail, Martha lip-reads Martin, and Martin interprets her sign language while Nicholas looks on. She denies being the murderer, but the troupe goes ahead with the play, based on the official version of the crime. As the troupe tries to reenact the circumstances leading up to the murder, the townspeople object that the facts are all wrong. Nicholas, now playing detective, decides to dig up the boy’s dead body, and the evidence clearly points to a man as the killer. Putting together the fragments of evidence, Nicholas confronts the town’s priest, who commits suicide shortly after the confrontation. Now the plot thickens, as the trail leads to the noble, Lord Robert de Guise (played by Vincent Cassel), who demands that the troupe leave town or be sentenced to death as well. The mystery story is indeed suspenseful, with only the outsiders willing to take the risk of pointing accusing fingers. Based on the novel Morality Play (1996) by Barry Unsworth, the title hints that a day of reckoning may be in store for the perpetrator of the violent misdeed. MH

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