As The Reckoning unfolds onscreen, somewhere in the audience there is a television executive thinking to himself, "I've got it! A new spinoff of C.S.I. … set in the 1380s!"
The Reckoning is an old-fashioned medieval murder mystery, full of priests, traveling entertainers, dank stony passageways, and castle dungeons. But it is told with a modern sensibility—its hero is forward-thinking, preoccupied with the empirical analysis of dead bodies. The "dark ages," as they were called before the Enlightenment came along and cured all our ills with science and technology (yes, that's sarcasm), were a hard time for investigators. After all, there were no police helicopters, no fingerprint databases, no cell phones, and the authorities were about as interested in peasant affairs as they were in cattle affairs. Autopsies were a real mess. Forensic science was in its infancy. And it was hard to tell one suspect from the next because of the popularity of dark cowls, cloaks and hoods.
Nicholas (Master and Commander's Paul Bettany) is a fugitive priest running from angry villagers who caught him in adultery. Fearful and wounded by guilt, he disguises himself by cutting his hair, pulling up his hood, and resembling the Satan in Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ.
During his flight through foggy ol' England, he stumbles onto a not-so-merry band of players, the sort that Hamlet was so happy to see rumbling into town. The actors have recently suffered the loss in their family, and Nicholas eagerly volunteers to step in and fill the void. The company is not thrilled with the idea, for reasons that they keep to themselves. But their leader Martin (Willem Dafoe) accepts Nicholas due to a certain like-mindedness. This sets grouchy old Tobias (Bryan Cox) to grumbling about how the company held to better standards back in the old days when Martin's father was in charge. Meanwhile, Martin's sister Sarah (Gina McKee) is immediately drawn to the hunted, haunted priest, and you can see that she will eventually become his next temptation.
The players set up shop in the village surrounding a mountainside castle, where the poor people in the service of the dour and dastardly Lord De Guise (Vincent Cassel of Irreversible, Read My Lips, and the upcoming Oceans Twelve) are unsettled by the recent murder of a young boy. When Martin's production of "Adam and Eve" does poorly at the box office, he seizes upon an unconventional and controversial idea. Why not cast off this confining tradition of performing the same old Bible stories? Why not play something relevant, timely, and of great interest to the locals? He convinces his party to gather the details of the boy's death and then to perform a speculative re-enactment of the events.
Soon, there's standing room only in the courtyard. The play's the most dramatic thing to visit town since the plague, and it's so effective that it stirs up dissension over the production's historical accuracy. Simon (Ewan Bremner), the local monk who found the dead boy, becomes indignant and agitated while De Guise's unruly enforcers rattle their weapons at the increasingly unruly crowd.