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|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E||
dir Paul McGuigan|
scr Mark Mills
with Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Gina McKee, Brian Cox, Ewen Bremner, Vincent Cassel, Tom Hardy, Elvira Minguez, Matthew MacFadyen, Simon McBurney, George Wells, Mark Benton, Luke de Woolfson, Heathcote Williams, James Cosmo, Simon Pegg
release US 5.Mar.04, UK 4.Jun.04
A medieval romance: Bettany and McKee
Like The Name of the Rose, this detailed medieval thriller has a fascinating story, intriguing characters and gorgeous production values. It builds cleverly as the mystery deepens, then struggles to bring it all to a conclusion.
Nicholas (Bettany) is a priest on the run in plague-ridden 1380s England after an indiscretion with a parishioner. Along the road he hitches a ride with a troupe of actors led by the impetuous-but-thoughtful Martin (Dafoe), who's in constant tension with the gruff old-timer (Cox). Their first stop is a village overseen by a silently pacing Norman lord (Cassel). Soon Nicholas discovers a huge conspiracy, seeking clues that might save a convicted deaf-mute (Minguez) ... and getting in even more trouble than he left behind.
The grimy visual style is beautifully filmed by Peter Sova in wide-screen with rich colours and, yes, lots of mud. Combined with McGuigan's inventive direction, this sets the scene for a gripping and involving plot that combines intrigue with politics, plus realistic characters. Bettany is excellent as a man trying to escape his past, but realising that he's going to have to face up to it (as the title suggests). Dafoe, Cox and the rest of the thespians (McKee, Hardy, McBurney and Wells) create memorable characters all their own; while Bremner (as the sinister local monk) and Cassel do what they can with minor but pivotal roles.
There's more than a little literary licence taken in the story--in an era in which non-biblical plays were blasphemy, it's rather doubtful that this group could invent improv like this. But there are plenty of other touches that are authentic and/or entertaining--plague, buggery, raging townsfolk, secretive officials, even a religious cult. And the story touches on some timely social issues about how people and governments are almost clinically co-dependent! So it's a pity when the final act kicks in and it's talky, overwrought and rather corny. It does tie up the loose ends in a satisfying way, but it doesn't live up to the promise of what went before.
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