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Friday, March 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Misha Berson
If you did not intuit this already, the brooding, largely humorless new historical drama "The Reckoning" should leave no doubt in your mind.
His blond locks shorn and handsome face pale and watchful, Russell Crowe's "Master and Commander" shipmate Paul Bettany stars here as Nicholas, a troubled 14th-century priest who transgresses with a married woman from his flock, then flees into the English wilderness after a clash with his lover's enraged husband.
On the lam, starved and desperate, Nicholas stumbles across a group of wandering players led by Martin (Willem Dafoe).
The troupe (which also includes prime British actors Gina McKee, Brian Cox and Simon McBurney) reluctantly takes Nicholas along to their next gig. It happens to be in a grim hilltop village getting ready to execute a deaf-mute woman, Martha (Elvira Mínguez) for the murder of a young boy.
Up until the time the acting troupe reaches the village, "The Reckoning" (which is based on the Booker Prize-honored novel "Morality Play," by Barry Unsworth) is stark but atmospherically engaging.
But once the actors set up shop, and Nicholas gets obsessively involved in proving Martha's innocence, melodrama and ponderousness encroach.
Director Paul McGuigan can't seem to get enough close-ups of raw, ravaged-looking faces or of wintry landscapes. (The film was shot in rural Spain, in and around period-accurate buildings erected especially for the film.)
Meanwhile, Mark Mills' screenplay doggedly pursues two themes: 1) the transition of English theater from the religious-mythic to the secular; and 2) the political cover-up of a feudal lord, trying to hide his nasty penchant for pederasty and murder.
It is the latter thrust of "The Reckoning" that feels most forced, a bit confusing and sometimes just silly. It's hard to buy the frantic transformation of Nicholas into a Middle Ages sleuth. And as dastardly Lord Robert de Guise, Vincent Cassel all but twirls his mustache to convey arch-villainy.
These de-glamorized actors must scramble to attract an audience and create stage magic in makeshift quarters.
But the thespians' debate over performing "real stories, events that touch us directly" instead of biblical tales, and protests of "We're not minstrels, we're actors!" have too bluntly modern a ring. And the lingering images of actors preparing (an ultra-limber Dafoe stretches himself into what look like advanced yoga poses), smack of preciousness.
Too bad the film doesn't rise to the stage-honed gifts of its strong cast (which also includes dashing Matthew Macfadyen, as a kind of medieval FBI agent), or to the potential of its source material. "The Reckoning" turns out not to be a gripping "whodunit" but an unsatisfying "howdunit."
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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