Paul McGuigan's The Reckoning amounts to exactly as much as the sum of its parts. Though some of the numbers in this equation are irrational, the parts are generally good. Unfortunately, McGuigan shows his work, which is good on a math test, but awkward for a film. With a bit more finesse, The Reckoning could have been a minor classic. As it is, it's an intriguing near-miss.
McGuigan, who also directed the somewhat smoother Gangster No. 1, reunites with that film's young lead, Paul Bettany. Bettany, who's found a measure of supporting-player stardom in films like A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander, has a face for period pictures and a keenly intelligent mien; indeed, his characters are invariably too smart for their own good. Here, Bettany plays Nicholas, a shamefaced priest fleeing a sinful transgression in 1380 England; among other characters, his reckoning will come due before the picture ends.
Nicholas falls in with a group of actors who are, of necessity, itinerant; grudgingly, they allow Nicholas to absorb the small parts left open by a company shake-up. The actors' first impresssion of the latest locality is the public show trial of a suspected murderess (Elvira Minguez), so when the company's clunky Adam and Eve play tanks, the troupe's leader Martin (Willem Dafoe) convinces the players to research the murder case. If the commoners expected anything of artful outsiders such as these, they expected the usual broadly-drawn morality plays, so Martin's radical "ripped from the headlines" drama courts trouble with the populace.
As their investigation blurs the lines of detective work, reportage, and drama, the town's dangerous secrets rise to the surface, bringing with them an incensed constabulary and a local lord (Vincent Cassel) who's more accustomed to flying over the people's radar. Dafoe convincingly renders the role of the company's "artistic director" (as a longtime prime mover in the avant-garde off-Broadway Wooster Group, Dafoe knows of what he acts); Brian Cox adds piss and vinegar as the rough-hewn prima donna of the company; and Minguez and Gina McKee (as an actress drawn to Nicholas) bring equally soulful energy to their understandably wary women.
Mark Mills' script (based on the novel Morality Play by Barry Unsworth) labors to harmoniously marry its disparate elements and has a floridly theatrical gift for overstatement (at the outset, Dafoe's character prophetically asserts, "I believe this is the way plays will be made in times to come"). But I'd far rather watch a picture that tries a bit too hard than not at all, and The Reckoning deals with some interesting notions. Mills starts with the nexus of clear-cut, dogmatic morality plays and the shadings of secular drama, and arrives at a clash of ideology between two sinners: one self-centered and self-governing, and one who believes in a higher judgment. Mills also reminds us that show trials and executions have always been unsettling coups de theatre for the powers that be. Then, as now, whoever can best grab attention and sway the public wins the mob's favor, and woe betide the loser when the tide turns.