If you take on a topic as unmarketable as a morality play set in 14th century England, you might as well assemble a killer cast and let the actors do what they do best. That's what Scottish helmer Paul McGuigan ("Gangster No.1") does with "The Reckoning," a mystery tale in which a troupe of thesps affects justice in a medieval village.

If you take on a topic as unmarketable as a morality play set in 14th century England, you might as well assemble a killer cast and let the actors do what they do best. That’s what Scottish helmer Paul McGuigan (“Gangster No.1″) does with “The Reckoning,” a mystery tale in which a troupe of thesps affects justice in a medieval village. Paramount Classics is apparently hoping to build positive critical buzz with fest appearances leading up to pic’s theatrical bow this spring. But without rousing action scenes to lure younger auds, “The Reckoning” is going to be a tough sell.

“The Reckoning” has its flaws, among them a certain self-righteousness and a complicated storyline, but it is never less than gripping thanks to its gifted international cast. McGuigan, working from a script by Mark Mills (from the Barry Unsworth novel “Morality Play”), rightly gets things rolling with a compelling sense of urgency, brisk pacing, and a whiff of mystery.

Having committed carnal sins, Nicholas (Paul Bettany) is a priest on the lam. Alone in the woods, he happens upon a traveling actors’ troupe. Spiritually bereft and desperate, Nicholas asks if he can join them. Their fair-minded leader Martin (Willem Dafoe) agrees, despite the objections of the burly Tobias (Brian Cox) among others. Martin’s sister Sarah (the radiant Gina McKee) is drawn to Nicholas, though she senses that he conceals a dark secret.

Arriving at a village, the actors stumble upon the public trial of a mute woman (Elvira Minguez), sentenced to hang for witchcraft and the murder of an adolescent boy. Later they perform their stock material, “The Fall of Adam and Eve” to a tiny and disenchanted audience. Tired of small crowds and meager tips, Martin makes a radical suggestion: Why not perform a play based on the woman’s crime? It’s the 14th century variation on reality TV.

Seeking to flesh out their play, Martin and Nicholas question the villagers about the crime, but the townsfolk are uncooperative. They interview the accused murderer, who defends her innocence through sign language. Though tempted to believe her, Martin knows he must nonetheless stage the crime as the townspeople believe it took place. To their credit, McGuigan and Mills retain just enough ambiguity to cast doubt on any number of potential culprits.

The actors perform the new play to a large and zealous crowd, but when a villager demands to see a play about “the other boys,” the throng erupts in chaos. Monk Simon Damian (Ewen Bremner), rushes to inform the local authority, Lord Robert de Guise (Vincent Cassel, emanating sleaze), who banishes the players.

In a third act overflowing with red herrings and plot twists, Nicholas and Martin try to solve the boy’s murder and in the process discover sordid information about prominent townsfolk.

McGuigan elicits uniformly solid performances from actors whose individual styles are very different. McKee holds her own with the more visibly demonstrative Dafoe, who sounds distractingly American alongside the British cast. He contorts his body to perform physically rigorous gymnastics (Martin’s stage warm-up) and has never appeared so lithe.

Cox tempers Tobias to blend in with his fellow actors where appropriate, while rising star Bettany shows he can anchor a picture.

“The Reckoning”‘s most impressive player, however, is its stunning set. When scouting expeditions in England failed to yield a viable medieval village, the producers opted to create one in Spain. On the ruins of an abandoned gold mine, production designer Andrew McAlpine and his team built a thoroughly convincing 14th century town, complete with a castle for de Guise. Expertly lensed by Peter Sova, pic is rife with atmosphere.

The Reckoning

Production

A Paramount Classics release of a Renaissance Films production in association with Kanzaman/MDA Films. Produced by Caroline Wood. Executive producers, Stephen Evans, Angus Finney. Co-producers, Denise O'Dell, Sarah Halioua. Directed by Paul McGuigan. Screenplay, Mark Mills, based on the book "Morality Play" by Barry Unsworth.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Peter Sova; editor, Andrew Hulme; music, Mark Mancina, Adrian Lee; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; supervising art director, John Ralph; art director, Jillian Ashby; set decorator, Anna Pinnock; costume designer, Yvonne Blake; sound (Dolby digital/SDDS), Antonia Bloch, Matt Grime; associate producer, Mark Albela; assistant directors, Yousaf Bokhari (Spain), Mary Soan (U.K.); casting, Jina Jay. Reviewed Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 17, 2004. (Also in Santa Barbara Film Festival -- closing night.) Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Nicholas - Paul Bettany Martin - Willem Dafoe Tobias - Brian Cox Sarah - Gina McKee Simon Damian - Ewen Bremner Lord De Guise - Vincent Cassel Martha - Elvira Minguez

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