Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for violence, language, and nudity
Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
The time is ripe for another malicious and religiously controversial tale about guilt and redemption.
Paul Bettany is at the core of this sinful potboiler, a man of the cloth named Nicholas who flees from his English community when he’s caught in flagrante delicto with another man’s wife. Seeking shelter from his sins, Nicholas joins a traveling troupe of actors, led by charismatic and hard-headed Martin (Willem Dafoe).
Tribulation produces patience, making fugitive Nicholas the most forbearing soul of the Middle Ages. The troupe does not warm to him, distrustful of his motives and his manic desire to hit the road running. Nonetheless, Nicholas’ presence is a welcome panacea when the actors confront a moral dilemma in the form of a local spectacle.
A deaf and dumb villager named Martha (Elvira Minguez) is being sentenced to death for the murder of a young town boy. Bad box office at the troupe’s biblical one-acts leads Martin to a divine inspiration: mount a performance based on the real-life crime transpiring in their adopted village.
The greater good of a nation is a strict mistress to serve, as the players discover when they perform their play to a troubled and chaotic crowd. Seems the thesps don’t have their facts straight; the boy was not the first to disappear and Martha may be innocent of the crime she will be hung for.
Priest turned player turns amateur sleuth, shunning tradition and following shadowy clues that will have damning consequences for all. Is a ruthless killer still at large?
Bitter conflict melds with truth, justice and sacrifice for a whopper of a melodrama. Bettany is at the top of his game, his cultured play on words (think Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) transforming this 14th century mystery into an intellectual conundrum. Dafoe gives his best performance in years, shorn of the professional desperation that has tainted his recent roles.
Climax is a killer of regal proportion, slightly self-conscious but set to the moody strains of melancholy strings and the frenzy of mass redemption.