After helming a mega budget Hollywood reboot of a beloved franchise by the name of Hellboy and doing a pretty decent job of it despite the many haters the brilliant Neil Marshall returns to more familiar ground with The Reckoning a classic English tale of disease and distrust.
Pitched perfectly for the Covid era Marshals movie, which he penned along with lead actress Charlotte Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell who co-wrote the original story Red Hex, is set during the Great Plague in the 16 hundreds. With boil covered bodies piled up on the streets and zero understanding of how to prevent the deadly virus the general populace is filled with paranoia, eager to blame anything they can rather than admit they have no control over this terrifying disease.
Living a simple but happy life with her husband and newborn child, Grace Haverstock (Vice and Oceans Eight star Charlotte Kirk) feels like one of the lucky ones until her love is forced to go into town for work and accidentally drinks from the same glass as a plague ridden pauper, turning everything upside-down.
Deciding to hang himself rather than infect his family Grace is left heart broken and without any means to pay the inflated rents of the slimy Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington from The Tudors) who demands her body instead of gold. Rejecting him and his violent advances the Squire is left emasculated and enraged deciding to get his revenge on Grace the worst way possible.
Starting up a rumour that the blameless widow is in fact a witch the towns folk quickly seize on the slanderous lie and soon the poor woman has had her home burnt to the ground, her baby taken from her and is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit. Determined to protest her innocence whatever happens the Squire seeks out the help of England’s most ruthless witch-hunter Judge Moorcroft (Dog Soldiers and Gotham’s Sean Pertwee) to secure a confession. So begins a battle of minds, wills and more as the tenacious female faces the faith driven fanatic to see who will break first.
Holding a dark mirror up to our current global crisis The Reckoning reminds us how quick humanity is to throw blame on any section of society they can when things are spiralling out of control. The literal witch hunts that occurred still happen figuratively today with countries, conspiracies and even individuals being target as the source of the global pandemic, its spread and its terrible effects, regardless it seems of facts or evidence.
The scene in which Grace is accused is menacingly mundane as the Squire sits in the local pub drinking before making a simple comment which sparks a series of other accusations building to a raging fire of intolerance and hatred. The mob mentality is shown several times throughout the film with peasants present at several of Grace’s trials jeering and yelling at the brutality and torture as if its entertainment. Ironically one of Grace’s accusers, a gypsy woman, ends up thrown in jail alongside her for exactly the same reason when the mob turns their prejudices against her, proving how anyone can be vilified in a world fuelled by anger and distrust.
Marshal’s deft direction is in effect throughout The Reckoning with plenty of slight scares and full on moments of menace and mutilation. Grace is beset by vicious visions and dreadful dreams of her dead husband and mother who was burnt at the stake for being a witch. Worse than that is the appearance of the devil himself who sees intent on taking Graces body and soul no mater how much she pleads. What is excellent is the suspension of any clear signs of the supernatural throughout the film keeping the audience unsure what is real or imagined and also highlighting the hypocrisy of the tyrannical trails.
Feeling a little flat in its first half it is really the witch trials and the arrival of Pertwee’s superb inquisitor that revitalises The Reckoning propelling it onwards to its entertainingly over blown and slightly unbelievable climax. Although Charlotte Kirk is clearly a talented actor something about her perfectly styled flowing hair and seamless make up make her a less convincing heroine in the opening act but when pitted against Pertwee her mettle and skills as both a thespian and character are truly tested and the film finds a much more solid and captivating groove, splattered with her much more believable blood and tears.
The five days of trials are brutal and deeply disturbing with methods used that are straight from the history books including public flogging, intrusive and shameful inspection by a band of nuns and a horrifying device that we see inserted inside Grace to cause maximum damage and discomfort.
Throughout all this Grace’s resolve remains true no matter what she goes through physically or mentally making her a powerful and poignant character especially against the male dominated society we see around her that persecutes women as easily as it oppresses and mistreats them.
Interestingly Pertwee plays Moorcroft as much more than a two dimensional villain embedding the witch finder with an element of empathy for his prisoners but also deep devotion not only to his mission but also his assistant Ursula played by Suzanne Magowan. A previously accused witch who somehow survived the fires Ursula repented, choosing to serve by her judge’s side as his servant making an interesting dynamic not seen in many witch hunter movies.
Equal parts entertaining and eye opening The Reckoning shows not only how sadly history repeats itself but also gives us a glimpse of the terrible and true trials endured by the 200,000 witches who were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe from 1484 until around 1750, a fact that we must never forget.