Neil Marshall’s had an interesting career, after his low-budget werewolf movie Dog Soldiers (2002) enabled him to make modern classic The Descent (2005), which in turn led to the less well-received post-apocalyptic action film Doomsday (2008) and historical war movie Centurion (2010). Those later misses pushed Marshall into prestige US television, where he chalked up an impressive resume including ambitious episodes of Game of Thrones (2011-19), Hannibal (2013-15), Black Sails (2014-17), Westworld, Timeless (2016-18), and the Lost in Space remake (the last two of which he also produced).
His undeniable successes on the small-screen were rewarded by Lionsgate handing Marshall $55M to reboot Hellboy (2019), but that project was a disaster thanks to studio interference and barely scraped back its production costs. So now, somewhat inevitably, Marshall’s gone back to his roots with a British-made horror he has complete artistic control over. He even co-wrote it with his fiance Charlotte Kirk, who takes the lead role.
It’s 1665 and the Great Plague is ravaging England and fuelling superstition and fears of witchcraft. Grace Haverstock (Kirk) is living a blessed life in the countryside with her dutiful husband Joseph (Joe Anderson) and newborn daughter, but her world collapses after he contracts the plague and hangs himself to spare his family the same fate. Grace is immediately forced to contend with their cruel landlord, Pendleton (Steven Waddington), who sees an opportunity to exploit this newly-widowed beauty into paying her rent with sexual favours. But after Grace proves to be unexpectedly headstrong and able to stand up to Pendleton’s advances, she finds herself unjustly accused of being a witch and comes to the attention of notorious witch-hunter Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), who vows to gain her confession of cavorting with Lucifer by means of physical and emotional torture.
The Reckoning is the first Neil Marshall movie that barely seems like he directed it. It’s devoid of his traits and rarely overcomes the feel it’s a cheap version of The Witch (2015) filmed inside a medieval theme park. A sense of time and place is sorely lacking, not helped by the fact Grace remains suspiciously clean-faced throughout and with gleaming white teeth. Even when undergoing excruciating torture and after spending weeks inside a dungeon, Marshall can’t seem to bring himself to have her appear appropriately sullied.
The physical degradation of Grace should have been a key way to let us sympathise with her plight and be eager to see her rise above her predicament to get revenge, but The Reckoning utterly fails in that respect. And it doesn’t help that Charlotte Kirk doesn’t convince as a 17th-century woman and her portrayal lacks any sort of physical or mental evolution of the character. It’s certainly not pleasant seeing what she’s put through, but it’s all surface-level empathising and we’re never particularly connected about her as either a grieving wife, a doting new mother, or just a young woman being unfairly treated by despicable middle-aged men.
Sean Pertwee’s presence is the only element that reminds you this is a Neil Marshall film (as he’s appeared in most of the director’s previous work) and he’s certainly the only one having fun in a role it’s admittedly hard to mess up. There have been many witch-finder characters over the years, with Vincent Price in Witchfinder General (1968) still the gold standard, and Pertwee does a decent job playing a misogynist zealot you can’t reason with because his faith is unshakeable and his hatred of women paramount. Steven Waddington’s also decent as a dislikable northern landowner, but it’s another role riffing on a hundred similar characters.
Truth is, The Reckoning lives or dies on the believability of its world and the depth of the lead performance at the heart of the story. And the movie simply fails on both counts, which is puzzling for a director who handled so many excellent female roles in The Descent and who worked on Game of Thrones. The film was shot in Budapest, Hungary, and despite the obvious attempt to mix The Witch and A Field in England (2013) together visually, it never coheres into a convincing whole. Kirk is also not a talented enough actress to take us on a gripping emotional journey with Grace, which is strange because she co-wrote the film and presumably had something to say about how women have been treated by men through the centuries.
Sadly, whatever works in Kirk and Marshall’s real-life relationship doesn’t translate into their filmmaking partnership, as The Reckoning flounders early and only mildly recovers once Pertwee enters the picture and puts Grace through hell. But even at this point, the film doesn’t lean into the horror of Grace’s situation enough to make us sick to our stomachs over what she has to endure. There’s a mildly effective flogging scene early on, but the repercussions of each torture aren’t felt in Kirk’s performance or how she’s made to look. Grace shakes things off so easily I was starting to wonder if she might indeed be in league with Satan, as it would be the only explanation for how each of Moorcroft’s efforts to break her fail.
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UK | 2020 | 110 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Neil Marshall.
writers: Neil Marshall, Charlotte Kirk & Edward Evers-Swindell.
starring: Charlotte Kirk, Joe Anderson, Steven Waddington, Sean Pertwee, Rick Warden, Mark Ryan & Leon Ockenden.