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Set in medieval times, 'The Reckoning' takes a cue
from a singular moment of courage in Tiananmen Square.

A matter of murder, mystery and morality

March 03, 2004|Mike Hodgkinson | Special to The Times

Some movies fall into consumer-friendly pigeonholes more neatly than others. "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," for example, does exactly what ads promised, but a project such as "The Reckoning," the third feature from director Paul McGuigan, presents something of a marketing challenge: The film is a rich, multilayered work that defies easy categorization.

The plot is straightforward enough. A fugitive medieval priest (Paul Bettany) hooks up with a troupe of freelance actors (Willem Dafoe and Brian Cox, among others) and exposes a horrific crime. Depending on which way it's spun, "The Reckoning" could be promoted as a historical drama, a dislocated western, a quest for redemption or even -- in the light of Dafoe's brief but incredible displays of contortion -- a yoga master class.

Rest assured, the DVD will not end up in the Health and Fitness section at your local video store. Distributor Paramount Classics has chosen to play up the murder-mystery angle, in which Bettany's excommunicated man of the cloth plays "amateur sleuth," to borrow a phrase from the press kit.

Director McGuigan, however, is not convinced that the priest detective vs. serial killer route is the most honest way to go. "We could have made a lot more of that, if we were more cynical," he says.

"One of the producers got really excited when I said to him, 'You know, this could make a really great TV series. A group of traveling medieval players that go around to villages and reenact a murder that has taken place.' I was kidding." Apparently seriously, "he said, 'Yeah, we should talk about that.' I don't think so."

Lead actor Bettany agrees with the director. "I think Paul [McGuigan] is right to play down the murder-mystery," he says. "It's more a conceit with which to discover the characters that populate the movie. It's a film at once about morality and also it's about the birth of modern drama -- which you don't often see in your multiplexes."

"The Reckoning," which opens Friday, marks the second collaboration between McGuigan and Bettany, following their powerful calling card, the stylish and viscerally powerful "Gangster No. 1," which brought them to the attention of Hollywood.

"He comes from a history of making documentaries, real people talking about ghastly situations," Bettany says. "So he's got an incredible [baloney] detector. I invariably do what I'm told. And he knows that."

Screenwriter Mark Mills adapted his script from the 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel, "Morality Play," by Barry Uns- worth. The screenplay's original title was changed, says McGuigan, late in the day.

"They've called it 'The Reckoning' so that someone with a deep, dark voice can say it in the trailer. 'Morality Play' is hard to say in a movie voice."

McGuigan saw the central theme in plain, unequivocal terms. The book "is full of layers and themes but, simply taken, what I got from it was a sense of how one human sacrifices himself because he feels he has to redeem himself." To help express this, throughout the shoot the director asked Bettany to keep in mind one of the most powerful 20th century images of lone conviction: the man who stood in front of Chinese government tanks, clutching his shopping bag, in Tiananmen Square, 1989.

"I think when someone does stand up for their beliefs you always remember it," McGuigan enthuses. "You remember that guy in front of the tanks. One little man, in a nation of billions of people, standing up -- it's an incredibly strong visual, you know."

"The Reckoning" was shot almost entirely on location at an abandoned goldmine near Almeria in southern Spain: "I had this stupid idea that I wanted to build a whole town there, so I could shoot 360" degrees, the director admits.

"It was the killing of me, because to shoot in 360 means you have to populate the 360 with people and goats and dogs."

The set was built with hired labor from the local Spanish jail, which reduces prison sentences in reward for days worked. Among the extras were Lithuanian tomato pickers discovered in nearby fields. The set was decorated with muddy peat imported from Estonia and fake snow, then the entire town was digitally cut-and-pasted into a brooding escarpment in Snowdonia, Wales.

"I didn't want anyone to be aware it was Spain we were shooting in," McGuigan says. "These guys scaled the mountain and put snow on it. It took about five days to do, then it would rain. They had to go back up and do it all over again. It was my fault -- I should have just done it in a castle in Wales, in one room."

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