The Reckoning

(Note: This review was done without the cooperation of — indeed, against the wishes of — Paramount Classics, which at this time denied online film critics access to press screenings of its movies.)

Those two old favorites, murder and conspiracy, provide the juiciness in “The Reckoning,” a fairly standard murder drama that happens to be set in … A.D. 1380!

This was a time when C.S.I. consisted of mopping up the blood with sawdust, when detective work meant hoping someone happened to see who committed the murder, and when there was no word for “autopsy” in the English language. In fact, there barely WAS an English language. So you can imagine the possibilities in trying to solve a murder under these primitive circumstances. Author Barry Unsworth imagined it in his novel, “Morality Play,” which screenwriter Mark Mills has adapted and Paul McGuigan (who gave us the superior “Gangster No. 1”) has directed.

We find a defrocked priest named Nicholas (Paul Bettany) who, while fleeing his last parish — more specifically, fleeing the husband of the woman he slept with — has run into a traveling troupe of actors led by the slitheringly charismatic Martin (Willem Dafoe). The merry band agrees to let him join them, largely because one of their numbers has just died, leaving a few roles open in their repertoire.

They enter a town where a young boy was recently murdered and a deaf-mute woman has been sentenced to death for it. Martin, seeking to introduce an innovation to English theater by producing a play that is NOT simply a Bible story put on stage, thinks the story of this boy, and how he was led astray and met his doom at the hands of this evil woman, would make a fine morality play. His fellows, not quite the forward thinkers Martin is, are hesitant but ultimately convinced.

Thing is, the deaf-mute woman says, by way of mime and gestures (who could write in 1380?), that she didn’t do it. She says the boy’s moneybag that was found in her house was planted there by the king’s men. Nicholas believes her, and while Martin is more interested in high drama than solving a murder, he’s keen to go along with Nicholas’ investigations for the sake of a good story. Let the amateur sleuthing begin!

Part of the intrigue here, of course, is that ALL sleuthing was amateur in those days. The setting gives the story a few twists that wouldn’t be possible in a film set in the 2000s. A deaf-mute person would make an easy scapegoat then, whereas today she would have interpreters and public defenders on her side. In addition, you could easily bury a body without anyone ever seeing it; there were no release forms or chains of custody or post-mortems in the 14th century.

However, despite the game acting from the sharp cast, which also includes Brian Cox and Vincent Cassel, the movie’s essential ordinariness eventually overcomes it. It is, despite the distractions, just a simple murder story, and the revelations in the end are hardly surprising or noteworthy. The final performance, in which all is explained in the form of a stage play, is useful for revealing the killer’s identity and the conspiracy that kept it a secret, but it seems a little silly when viewed from an objective standpoint. It resembles nothing so much as the final moments of a “Scooby-Doo” episode, where Fred and the gang sum it all up before pulling the mask off the monster. And when you’re making a murder mystery, the last thing you want to invite comparisons to is “Scooby-Doo.”

C+ (1 hr., 49 min.; R, a little nudity, some brief strong sexuality, some thematic elements.)