Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 04, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Reckoning

Current Status
In Season
110 minutes
Limited Release Date
Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Brian Cox, Tom Hardy, Gina McKee
Paul McGuigan
Paramount Classics
Mark Mills

We gave it a B

Some critics have suggested that the graphic violence of ”The Passion of the Christ” is made for a medieval audience. Now The Reckoning arrives to give the Middle Ages a modern kick. This visually inventive adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s Booker Prize-nominated novel ”Morality Play” is actually set in 14th-century England, where, if war and politics didn’t do a fellow in, the Black Plague did.

Nicholas (Paul Bettany), a priest on the run from his cathedral — his reasons account for half the plot’s mystery — meets a troupe of actors on the road. The band, with their persuasive leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), earn their itinerant living staging didactic plays based on biblical stories, and with Nicholas now a member, the company rolls into an unfamiliar, faintly creepy village where the talk of the town is the local woman under a death sentence for the murder of a young boy. (Whoreallydunnit is the other half of the mystery.) When Martin — in a creative breakthrough that advances the art of theater by leaps and bounds in just one night — gets the radical idea to create a play based on the real story they have just heard, the performers find themselves searching for truth, meditating on sin and repentance, and testing the power of art to affect both artists and audiences.

For Nicholas, the mystery of the unsolved murder drives him to hard self-examination, and self-examination draws from Bettany yet another bravura performance (like that in ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”) as a complicated man given to bouts of spiritual torment. As for Scottish director Paul McGuigan, who made a splashy debut in 2000 with ”Gangster No. 1,” his jumpy, textured, very mod style adapts with surprising elegance to the grimy drudgery of 14th-century life. Circling restlessly around the cast (which also includes Brian Cox as a fellow thespian, Gina McKee as Martin’s somber sister, Vincent Cassel as the local nobleman, and ”Trainspotting”’s Ewen Bremner as a shady man of the cloth), the director conveys both the troupe’s camaraderie and the private terrors everyone harbors in dark times.

”The Reckoning,” with a script by Mark Mills, demands close attention; it’s a play of words and ideas crowding for consideration, and sometimes wordiness tumbles into cinematic self-consciousness about the art of Art, with one or two or three too many jump cuts to shots of lit torches, the faces of anxious citizens, or actors playing actors engrossed in acting. (Sometimes those ideas aren’t nearly as deep as the filmmaking suggests.) But Dafoe makes Martin’s role as head of the company as naturalistic as that of any contemporary SoHo creative director. And in the striking play-within-a-play scenes staged by Simon McBurney, head of England’s innovative Complicite theater company, medieval theatrical forms are indistinguishable from the avant-garde.

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