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Medieval mysteries

An engaging story line, some eccentric twists and Paul Bettany's ethereal presence make the moody 'Reckoning' most watchable.

March 05, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

In the medieval thriller "The Reckoning," the young English actor Paul Bettany plays a priest on the lam. Caught with his vestments around his ankles, Bettany's Nicholas has fled his old parish life for the secular road, the law in hot pursuit. Not long afterward, he stumbles on an acting troupe that grudgingly welcomes him into their company. When the actors in turn stumble onto a mystery -- a boy lies dead and a woman stands accused -- what began as an offbeat character study rapidly turns into an episode of "Law and Order: The Dark Ages."

Nicholas and the actors' leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), have had their faith rocked by their own deeds and by the ravages of the plague; unlike the troupe that follows one man and the flock that followed the other, the two are ready to chart their own paths. As Nicholas struggles to make peace with his faith and his own self, Martin, true to his name, instigates a reformation. Going against tradition, he suggests that the troupe pump up their box office by ditching their standard repertory. Instead of Bible plays with a red-tongued devil (a role Brian Cox takes to with gusto), they will mount productions that speak to the everyday truths of the people. Instead of sermons, there will be proto-Shakespearean tales of castle intrigue, debauchery and blood.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Reckoning" -- A March 3 Calendar article about the film "The Reckoning" incorrectly reported that "Morality Play," the Barry Unsworth novel on which the film was based, won the 1996 Booker Prize for fiction. Graham Swift's "Last Orders" won the Booker Prize that year. Unsworth, however, did win in 1992 for "Sacred Hunger."

This new dramaturgy leads to the murdered boy, the female suspect and, in time, a French overlord (Vincent Cassel) lurking in the castle with such palpable villainy that "Law and Order's" Jerry Orbach would have booked him before the first commercial. Given that the cinematography gives away the ending long before the third act it appears that director Paul McGuigan isn't fully engaged by the story's weightier themes. (Mark Mills adapted the screenplay from the Barry Unsworth novel "Morality Play.") As in his previous features "The Acid House" and "Gangster No. 1," McGuigan tends to err on the side of flash. But what's best about "The Reckoning" isn't its moody monochromatic palette and nimble camera moves but the glimpse it affords into a world on the verge of modernity.

The actors are pretty swell, too. Bettany, currently keeping company with Russell Crowe in the seafaring adventure story "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," is an appealing, unclassifiable type. The actor first attracted attention in the United States by shedding his clothes to play Chaucer in the amiable oddity "A Knight's Tale." Somewhat delicate looking, with spidery limbs and pale, translucent skin that stretches tightly across his cheekbones, Bettany projects an ethereal ambiguity, an otherworldliness that made him an ideal fantasy figure for Crowe's crazed mathematician in "A Beautiful Mind." But spiders can be fearsome killers and one of Bettany's strongest film roles to date has been in "Gangster No. 1," in which he played a young psycho partial to tight suits, skinny ties and big guns.

"The Reckoning" isn't great by any means and there are moments during the final stretch when it isn't even good. But for its first hour or so, the story moves at a steady clip, generating enough mystery to keep you guessing and enough atmosphere to keep you interested. Mostly, "The Reckoning" is best appreciated for its ambition, its actors and McGuigan's penchant for eccentric digression. One of the most beautiful and genuinely strange images I've seen in a long while is the sight of Dafoe doing yoga in this film. (Maybe it's medieval Pilates; I have no idea.) Photographed against a darkened backdrop and stripped to the waist, the actor contorts himself into an object of eerie grace, a lissome crustacean. Like Bettany, he never seems quite of this world.


'The Reckoning'

MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality and violent images

Times guidelines: If this were a major studio release, it would be PG-13

Willem Dafoe...Martin

Paul Bettany...Nicholas

Gina McKee...Sarah

Brian Cox...Tobias

Ewen Bremner...Damian

Vincent Cassel...Robert de Guise

Released by Paramount Classics. Director Paul McGuigan. Writer Mark Mills. Based on the novel by Barry Unsworth. Producer Caroline Wood. Director of photography Peter Sova. Editor Andrew Hulme. Production designer Andrew McAlpine. Costume designer Yvonne Blake. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood (323) 848-3500 and Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, Westside Pavilion, 10800 West Pico Blvd. (310) 475-0202.

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