The Reckoning: Plague to the Cheap Seats, by David Bax
During the recent, virtual Sundance Film Festival, there premiered a surprising number of movies that, despite having been conceived of and largely produced before the COVID-19 pandemic, had eerie similarities to what our lives have become. Add to that list Neil Marshall’s The Reckoning (which premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival last August), a movie that was shot back in the innocent days of 2019 but is set in the midst of England’s 1665-1666 “plague year,” in which the bubonic plague killed around 100,000 people (a number that has, grievously, now been eclipsed by COVID-19). The corpses, the fear of contamination and the masked specters roaming the roads give The Reckoning a kind of real world horror with which its corny supernatural and allegorical monsters can’t compete.
New mother Grace Haverstock (co-screenwriter Charlotte Kirk) has just lost her husband to the plague when the squire (Steven Waddington) from whom they rent their farmland shows up offering her another method of paying her debts to him. When she refuses his advances and then his physical attacks, the squire heads back into town and starts spreading rumors that Grace is a witch. She’s quickly arrested and faces ongoing “trials” (really torture sessions) at the sadistic and pious hands of the Witchfinder John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee). It’s only then that Satan actually does begin to appear to Grace, tempting her with assistance against her unjust abuse.
Marshall has deservedly amassed a considerable cult following after directing films like Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Centurion, plus a couple of fan favorite episodes of Game of Thrones. Flashes of his signature style appear here and there in The Reckoning, in the way he crosscuts between Grace’s husband’s last moments and her burial of him out in the fields or in the delightfully gruesome death of a local spousal abuser. But, for the most part, The Reckoning (despite Marshall’s co-credit on the screenplay) feels even more like a dispassionate, director-for-hire job than his television work.
The Reckoning is overwritten and overacted. So much so, in fact, that it approaches a level of camp. But only Pertwee as the vicious fiend has the confidence and gravitas to bring the kind of hamminess that the material would require in order to reach the company of the beloved schlock movies of the past to which it plainly aspires.
Everyone else just looks like modern day actors standing around on sets wearing costumes. Budgetary concerns likely bear some of the blame for this but Marshall, the cast and the consumer grade look of Luke Bryant’s cinematography don’t help matters.
Like many other stories about witch trials, The Reckoning unambiguously positions itself as a parable of deeply ingrained societal and institutional sexism, laying bare how Grace’s agency and her reputation are all she has but exercising the former damages the latter. Particularly damning attention is paid to the carnal motivations of Grace’s tormenters; her torture scenes are sexualized in a way that avoids prurience, placing us in Grace’s position as she is stripped bare and as sharp knives are run across her pubis. There’s commendable conviction to this point of view but, like the chintzy facades against which it takes place, the rest of the movie is too flimsy to offer much support.