My two posts on the Top Ten Films of the Middle Ages List (part one and part two), along with a recent addition to the list, continue to be three of the most viewed pages on this blog. Visitors wander in directly from Google, having searched for movies relating to the Middle Ages. And the numbers of visitors continues to grow on the strength of these pages … proof to me that there is a very tangible interest in the time period and that people look to depictions of the Middle Ages to fuel their imagination.
Well, here’s another recommendation for all you medieval enthusiasts: The Reckoning (2003), a wonderful film adaptation of a remarkable book, Morality Play, by British author, Barry Unsworth. I wrote about Morality Play a few weeks ago, and I called it a “a brilliant read” and “a taut mystery with masterful story-telling” and a “superb depiction of the Middle Ages.” Film adaptations are often hit or miss, but this one is a definite hit.
The plot involves a 14th century English priest, Nicholas, played by Paul Bettany (Wimbledon, The DaVinci Code), who has committed adultery and is thus “on the lam” from the Church. He joins a troupe of players who travel from town to town peforming morality plays. Their leader is Martin, played by Willem Dafoe (Spiderman 1, 2, 3, The English Patient). The group arrives in a small village in the domain of an evil Norman Lord, where a boy has been recently murdered. Martin convinces the players to perform the crime on the stage, and Nicholas finds the hidden truth about the mysterious death.
The film carries the sombre mood that Unsworth paints so well in the book. The director, Paul McGuigan, seizes on the wintery atmosphere of the book and has snowflakes drifting across the screen in the most of the scenes. The snow-dusted landscapes, the crude medieval village scenes and depictions of village life were all effective in creating the stark mood. The film also brought to life how these medieval morality plays were performed, with the rudimentary sets, props and backgrounds and the effect the performances had on the villagers.
Having just read the book, it was interesting to be aware of adjustments made to the plot for the film version. Nicholas, the priest, is made a murderer in the movie, as well as an adulterer. I can only assume this was because the filmmakers had to find additional motivation for Nicholas to throw away his habit and become a fugitive from the church. In the 14th century, adultery of any kind was a mortal sin and it would almost certainly have meant excommunication for a guilty priest. But adultery in today’s world is a little mundane, after all, and modern audiences would have less trouble understanding his flight if he had also murdered a man.
Another result of the adaptation from novel to film is that The Reckoning comes across more as a medieval whodunnit and misses some of the deep psychological turmoil of the main character. Paul Bettany tries to bring some of that across, but in the novel, we are privy to his guilt over committing adultery, his fear of being inhabited by the devil and his shame at running from the church. To be fair, it would be difficult to bring all this into the film, so the transformation to medieval murder mystery is an acceptable compromise, I suppose. The Name of the Rose (1986), another medieval whodunnit, has already been covered in my previous film picks.
I would gladly introduce The Reckoning into top Middle Ages movies status and recommend it highly. But I would more urgently recommend Unsworth’s original novel, Morality Play, because of its superb realization and psychological drama.
Incidentally, Reckoning director Paul McGuigan is currently working on a film called Four Knights, which deals with the murder of Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1171. The film is an adaptation of a play written by British playwright Paul Webb and first performed in 1999. It is about the four knights sent by Henry II to arrest Beckett, and how one of them accidentally kills him. The film follows the four knights as they flee across the countryside to escape the wrath of the public and the Pope. The play was criticized because of its use of modern language, with an abundance of profanity and slang. It is due for release in 2010. No further information about the production is readily available on the Internet, but Wikipedia has a decent entry on the original play.