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Photograph by Stephen Vaughan

Friend or Dafoe?: Paul McGuigan's film 'The Reckoning' sends Willem Dafoe to the Middle Ages as a traveling actor.

Into the Past

Medieval actors catch the conscience of the past in 'The Reckoning'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE REIGN of the weakling King Richard II, a troupe of strolling actors takes to the road. They're a "Christmas present" from one baron to another. A wandering stranger, a haunted ex-priest named Nicolas (Paul Bettany), joins the actors. They quickly haze him, and just as quickly instruct him in the craft of acting. Their cart breaks an axle in a remote village, and they have to pay the cartwright with an impromptu performance. But both the players and the townsfolk are distracted by a murder case. Martha, a deaf and dumb healing woman (Elvira Minguez, quite powerful in the role), has been sentenced to the gallows for strangling a 12-year-old boy.

As a mystery, The Reckoning is easy to solve. All our murder-mystery reading instincts will be offended if the crime doesn't go all the way to the top. And the significance of the local lord's enforcers isn't lost on us any more than it is on the townsfolk. The soldiers sidle into town, their faces covered with cowls of black leather, studded with metal. I respect a medieval film that reminds us that knights in armor were bad news. Suspense grows as we try to figure out how the actors can outwit the authorities.

Director Paul McGuigan's palette emphasizes shades of green, as if he's illuminating an agricultural world; the faces and backgrounds come in ochre, olive-drab and moss. He shot the film in the Spanish mountains, under a thin winter's frost, but it never looks static or picturesque. McGuigan uses whip-pans and zoom lenses to conjure a news-camera's look at the past. Yet McGuigan lost me in a too-conspicuous back and forth transition between a badly staged, ravelike carnival and the disinterment of a body from a grave. It's surprising, given that McGuigan directed Gangster No. 1, that The Reckoning isn't a gross movie. He doesn't present the Middle Ages as an endless cavalcade of suffering.

One wishes that the ending's confrontation between the faithless priest and the nihilist lord De Guise (Vincent Cassel) had been more flamboyantly evil. McGuigan insists that the real blessing of drama is its civilizing role, how it can catch the conscience of a crowd, as well as a king's. In moments where the actor's leader, Martin (Willem Dafoe), warms up with stretching exercises (I know it seems unlikely, but there were tumblers in those days, after all), it's easy to buy the film's argument that the challenges facing actors are unchanged in 700 years. Dafoe still has the face you cannot trust. He follows his performance in Spider-Man, which was worthy of Lon Chaney, with this vision of the life of an actor under pressure. Like Dafoe and his fellow cast member Brian Cox (with a ripe Scottish accent that makes him sound like he's been dubbed by Billy Connolly), Bettany shows us a peculiarly medieval face. The acting excuses the film's insistence not only on the importance of acting but also on the necessity of a hammy death scene.

The Reckoning (R; 110 min.), directed by Paul McGuigan, written by Mark Mills, based on the novel by Barry Unsworth, photographed by Peter Sova and starring Willem Dafoe and Paul Bettany, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 17-24, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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