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May 12, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Somebody get Jerry Bruckheimer on the phone — I’ve got his next hit TV show: “CSI: Medieval.” Set in 1380 Britain and centered around a murder mystery, people in The Reckoning are always turning to the physical evidence to disprove the accepted story about how a person came to be just a body. Distinctive wounds prove that an accused murderer could not have been the perpetrator. Time of death is determined by the presence of rigor mortis. Marks on a neck prove that a supposed suicide was throttled rather than hanged. Call me cynical, but it seems that people who believed their health was determined by the balance of four humours might be a little less than attentive to forensic evidence. Mightn’t a medieval mind be as likely to ascribe illogical findings to the work of demons as to criminal malfeasance?

Much of the movie’s plot depends on people in the first half of the second millennium thinking like we do at the beginning of the third, and it just ain’t so. I don’t buy it for a second, and it makes the actors look silly, especially when they are declaring outright how the future will be. When the other actors in his touring company can’t believe Willem Dafoe’s character wants to stage a play based on life rather than on a story from the Bible, he retorts, “I believe this is the way plays will be made in times to come.” Very prescient, Willem, but the line makes you sound like a complete tool (and the way his accent is constantly slipping doesn’t help).

It’s a shame the story’s such a stinker, because this is one great-looking movie. Director Paul McGuigan has assembled a talented team of collaborators to give it a distinct visual style, both heightened and at times shockingly immediate. The period recreation is detailed and quite lovely, in a grimy way. The locations in the U.K. and Spain are beautifully filmed by veteran cinematographer Peter Sova, who previously worked with McGuigan on Gangster No. 1. The fluid handheld camerawork is artfully deployed and there are gorgeous inserts that exist purely to provide visual excitement. The arty, jump-cut editing is by Andrew Hulme, who has worked on all McGuigan’s films to date.

Along with Dafoe, the stately cast includes Paul Bettany, Brian Cox, and Vincent Cassel, all acting up a storm, seemingly unaware of what a thin story they’re hanging their performances on. Still, they do their level best, and come close to selling scenes that are written far beneath their abilities. Their efforts, though, are hindered by Adrian Lee and Mark Mancina’s original music, which is so heavy-handed it seems to have been lifted whole from a 1950s melodrama.

The film is so visually rich and the performances so much in earnest that you keep expecting them to be able to pull it off, despite the script, until another embarrassing line of dialogue or clangingly anachronistic plot development derails the thing again. The Reckoning is one of the most interesting failures I’ve seen in a while, but it’s still a failure.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


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