Not So Merry Olde England: Plagues, Witch Hunts and Torture in ‘The Reckoning’

In The Reckoning, the latest film from cult director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent), Evelyn (Charlotte Kirk) and husband Joseph (Joe Anderson) live a simple life on their family farm with a newborn baby. But when Joseph succumbs to the plague, he chooses to take his own life to avoid infecting his wife and child. This leaves Evelyn at the mercy of the squire (Steven Waddington), who tries to blackmail her into giving him her land and sleeping with him. When she rebuffs his attempted sexual assault, he stoops to accusing her of witchcraft, consigning her to gaol and calling for the dreaded Witchfinder General.

Any modern witchcraft-centred period piece is certain to draw comparison with Robert EggersThe Witch. The strength of Eggers’ film lies in its commitment to immersion. It creates a world so cohesive and grounded that even the absurd superstitions of 17th-century colonists feel fresh and frightening to a modern audience. The Reckoning cannot boast the same kind of earthy appeal. The swelling score and soft, idyllic lighting that suffuse the opening scenes have a slightly hokey feel, more in line with a high fantasy epic than a realistic historical drama. The limited scope, confining the story to a handful of locations, and simple costuming also contribute to an unfortunate “Game of Thrones knock-off” feeling that the film struggles to shake off.

Fortunately, the story itself is fairly compelling, at least in these opening scenes. Evelyn losing her husband and becoming the victim of a conspiracy for the squire to seize her house and land make for an engaging, if simplistic, story. There are even a few action sequences that are well handled and dynamic. Once Evelyn is confined to the gaol for witchcraft, things become a lot more staid. We settle into a cyclical rhythm of torture scenes separated by title cards to show the passing of days. These are interspersed with Evelyn’s dreams of the devil appearing to her in her cell and attempting to claim her soul. Once again, the Game of Thrones-lite production design undercuts the realism. Evelyn emerges from each encounter, even the ones that would certainly have killed or permanently disabled her, pristine and fully made up. It’s an aesthetic totally at odds with the supposed messaging of the film. For a story that thinks it has a lot to say about institutional misogyny, it decidedly lacks weight.

The film’s biggest strengths lie in the dual performances of its two antagonists. Steven Waddington is smarmy and lecherous as squire Pendleton, the landlord who tries to use Evelyn’s bereavement as a means of gaining sexual advantage over her.

Meanwhile, Sean Pertwee steals the show as John Moorcock, the Witchfinder General. The shadow of Vincent Price hangs heavy over any production that features a Matthew Hopkins analogue. There’s certainly something of Price in Pertwee’s delivery, but he still manages to make the role his own. Where Price was a corrupt hypocrite, hiding his greed and lust behind a mask of piety, Pertwee portrays his witch hunter as a true believer. Moorcock is a fanatic, as ecstatic about his faith as he is ruthless about crushing its perceived enemies. Perhaps the most sinister parts of his performance are the glimmers of humanity through it. His steely determination is never as unnerving as when he permits himself a note of regret or remorse.

However, despite strong performances, the dialogue is extremely one-note, and even veteran actors like Pertwee struggle to breath life into their stock characters. Exchanges between the Witchfinder General and Evelyn are less of a battle of wits and more like a barrage of predictable clichés.

For a film with undertones of female empowerment, it’s a shame that the female characters are so hastily sketched in comparison with their male counterparts. Where Evelyn’s single-mindedness and determination befit her role as the protagonist (albeit one with few dimensions), the supporting characters would really benefit from more screen time. Suzanne Magowan plays the Witchfinder’s assistant, permanently scarred after having herself been accused and burned at the stake, only to be saved by rain (God’s mercy, as interpreted by Moorcock). Now she follows her new master with the glassy determination of a cult member. Meanwhile, Sarah Lambie plays a friend of Evelyn’s who herself is the victim of gendered violence, this time in the form of an abusive husband.

Both of these characters are compelling, and with a little more focus given to them, they could have added a great deal of depth to the story. They show how pervasive the systemic misogyny is, and the different ways that it finds expression and affects people trapped within it. However, with only a handful of lines each, these interesting characters take a back seat, and we focus on the far more cut-and-dried tale of the angelic Evelyn versus the demonic Moorcock.

The Reckoning treads some familiar ground, echoing films like Black Death, The Devils and The Witchfinder General. However, in an era where using historical plagues and witch hunts as a means of examining modern misogyny and cultural paranoia seems more urgent than ever, The Reckoning doesn’t have a great deal to add to the conversation. Neither gritty enough for grindhouse thrills nor well-drawn enough for historical immersion, the film boasts a strong opening and satisfying conclusion, but treads water frustratingly for much of its runtime.

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