Initially a convincing widescreen English-language historical epic probing religious tension during the Inquisition, “The Headsman” suffers in later reels, veering too far into sensationalist revenge melodrama. Commercial prospects are mixed, with fair theatrical biz sure to be augmented by undiscriminating tube and ancillary sales.
In the 16th century, two orphans, Martin and Georg, bond as friends at a monastery in the Tyrol region of Europe. Fifteen years later, Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), now an army captain, returns from battle and reconnects with Georg (Peter McDonald), now a prelate at the local abbey.
In short order, Martin becomes smitten with Anna (Anastasia Griffith), daughter of the local executioner and, by extension, an outcast subject to derision. When a bout of lovemaking produces a son and Martin survives one final battle, he decides a change of careers is in order. Unfortunately, since Martin is now married to Anna (over Georg’s strenuous objections), the only job he can land is succeeding Anna’s recently deceased father as regional headsman.
And he’s good at it, swiftly dispatching a supposed Anabaptist under the approving gaze of the calculating archbishop (John Shrapnel). But local cripple Fabio (Eddie Marsan), who feels he was passed over for the headsman job, stirs up trouble for the young marrieds, while Brother Bernhard (Lee Ingleby) seems to be in on a plot to destabilize the church’s authority.
When the archbishop loses confidence in Prior Georg, an Inquisitor (Steven Berkoff) is summoned, prompting drastic action by Martin to save his family.
Though a title card explicitly observes “then, as now, a fundamentalist alliance pointed the way to darkness,” pic is increasingly less concerned with the arbitrary nature of the religious wars, with helmer Simon Aeby and scripters Susanne Freund and Steve Attridge instead succumbing to the lure of grisly special effects. This serves to undercut the pic’s seriousness to such a degree that Martin’s poignant fate is lost in a chaotic denouement marked by much anguished screaming.
Competent cast does what it can with characters too often thinly sketched or cliched, with vet Berkoff and “Vera Drake” costar Marsan most in the spirit of things. Tech credits sell the period, led by vet “Kolya” d.p. Vladimir Smutny’s widescreen lensing and Christoph Kanter’s convincing production design. Pic was shot on locations in Austria and Hungary.