Playtime in Medieval England

Willem Dafoe (left) and Paul Bettany co-star in The Reckoning.
Playtime in Medieval England

By Steven G. Kellman

'The Reckoning' summons the early spirit of drama

The play's the thing wherein Hamlet catches the conscience of a usurping king. Shakespeare's melancholy prince commissions a troupe of itinerant actors to perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago, whose plot is so similar to how Claudius seized power, by murdering his brother, that the culprit is shamed into confession. The ghost of Hamlet - haunted by his father's ghost - haunts The Reckoning. Adapted by screenwriter Mark Mills and director Paul McGuigan from a novel by Barry Unsworth called Morality Play, it, too, uses theatrical performance to expose criminality.

The year is 1380, and in an England ravaged by plague, Nicholas, a renegade priest, is forced into flight for adultery and other, unnamed crimes. He tosses his crucifix into a river and takes refuge with a group of traveling actors. At the first village they come to, a cluster of cottages nestled beneath a hilltop castle, a mute woman has been sentenced to hang for the mutilation murder of a boy. Suspecting that the woman has been framed, the actors devise a reenactment of the killing that arouses the villagers and outs the true villain.

Their play-within-the-film departs from the standard repertoire of medieval miracle and mystery plays, representations of Biblical stories and saints' lives designed to fortify the faith of audiences. Early in The Reckoning, the players stage their usual fare, a rendition of the play Adam and Eve that intrigues a modern viewer with its lively simulation of early English theater. But the villagers, indifferent to yet another performance of the same old story and distracted by the plague and a string of serial murders in their midst, are underwhelmed. Responsive to his public, an actor named Martin (Dafoe) proposes a script based on a contemporary event, the murder of the local boy. "We can show the people God's hand at work with real stories," he explains to his skeptical fellow thespians.

The Reckoning

Dir. Paul McGuigan; writ. Mark Mills, Barry Unsworth (novel); feat. Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Brian Cox, Gina McKee, Vincent Cassel, Richard Durden (R)
But Martin has only recently assumed leadership of the troupe after his father's death, and his authority is challenged by an older colleague. "Who dares play things that happen in this world?" asks Tobias (Cox), as if he had never heard of Henrik Ibsen or Bertolt Brecht. His is a dramaturge's version of what Nicholas as priest had preached: "Seek those things that are above, not those things that are on the earth." For Tobias, theater should rise above the petty, mundane truths of ordinary life. The argument between Tobias and Martin prefigures contemporary tensions between the classical repertoire and agitprop, between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Angels in America. In the film at least, Martin wins. "This is how plays will be made in times to come," he declares, as if he has sneaked a peek at the dozens of dramas about AIDS, domestic violence, and drug abuse that would be produced for TV movies-of-the-week.

With the reluctant assistance of the other actors, Martin and Nicholas create a kind of courtroom drama that, while staged in the courtyard of an inn, serves to dramatize and solve a felony. The performance is interrupted several times by members of the audience, who, as witnesses to the events depicted, become collaborators in a collective quest for truth through drama. The plot is thickened by resistance from the Church and from Robert De Guise (Cassel), a Norman lord who tyrannizes and terrorizes the Anglo-Saxon populace. "There's more at stake here than you'll ever know," the King's Justice, intent on justice through more covert means, warns impulsive Nicholas.

Dimly lit and shadowed by dynastic and religious conspiracy, The Reckoning evokes the dark ages of the Black Death, before artificial lighting and secular enlightenment. The performances, by actors impersonating actors partial to mime, often seems self-indulgent. Yet the film offers a more fulfilling excursion to medieval Europe than A Knight's Tale, the preposterous entertainment that Paul Bettany, who plays Nicholas, also starred in. No, he is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. But, despite bothersome contrivances in its plot and a Babel of accents in 21st-century English, his latest film will do to summon up the spirit of early drama. •

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