Directed by Paul McGuigan
Screenplay by Mark Mills
Based on the novel Morality Play by Barry Unsworth
The Reckoning is an interesting murder mystery set in a small English village at the end of the 14th Century. While the plot starts out with the protagonist, Father Nicholas, unraveling the mystery of who killed young Thomas Wells, the story is actually about the discovery of what is taking place in this village.
Nicholas, a priest on the lam, comes across a company of traveling actors and asks to join them. Although there is some disagreement among their ranks, the actors welcome him into their fold. With their wagon needing some repairs, they decide to set up shop in the nearest village. Unfortunately, their arrival occurs while the village is dealing with a recent tragedy; a young boy, Thomas Wells, has been murdered. His killer is locked in jail, awaiting execution.
Needing to raise some money to cover their stay and the wagon’s repairs, the players perform some stories, but they have a very low turnout. Martin, the troupe leader, decides they need to do something to spice things up a bit and reach a bigger audience. His plan is to break with tradition and not tell a Biblical story as they usually do, choosing instead a story that the whole town is interested in: the killing of Thomas Wells. Martin and Nicholas bribe the guard so they can meet with Martha to learn why she did it. She is a mute, but professes her innocence during the questioning. Martin doesn’t believe her because everyone in prison claims to be innocent. However, Nicholas has some doubts.
As Martin suspected, once word gets around a huge turnout shows up for the new play. As they re-enact Thomas’ tale, the audience questions and argues about the choices made by the actors in telling the story. The crowd gets so unruly that the authorities have to stop the play. Nicholas does some investigating and learns that not only does no one believe Martha killed Thomas, but the “official” story disagrees with the evidence. As Nicholas gets closer to the truth, they are ordered to leave by the morning or face dire consequences. They do temporarily, but come back in time to save Martha and perform a new version of Thomas’ tale, this time using their newfound information and the guidance of the crowd to properly tell the story.
The characters were okay, but not fully realized people. They got the job done, but there wasn’t much memorable about their characters, other than the odd moments when Willem Dafoe would get into Cirque du Soleil poses, although those scenes took me out of the movie momentarily. The characters’ motivations were in service of the plot rather than of themselves. I was caught up enough in the story that I didn’t mind what little characterization there was. It’s too bad there wasn’t more for the actors to do, especially Willem Dafoe and Brian Cox.
This story was familiar but had interesting twists and turns. Not to imply that the identity of the killer was a surprise, but there was an interesting route of discovery as events unfolded and the resolution was satisfying. It is very reminiscent of Hamlet’s use of the players to learn the truth about his father’s murder. The Reckoning is an appealing tale that shows art being used to illustrate the truth. I enjoyed the film and so will mystery fans.