Starting out as a cunning variation on the crime thriller, set in England at
the end of the 14th century, this medieval mystery moves with dramatic vigor
and an engrossing build until it gets bogged down in the final reckoning with
grand themes and indulgent speechmaking designed to ensure we get the
message. We do, but it brings out the worst in our performers.
Putting the tale into motion is Nicholas (Paul Bettany), an earnest but
lustful priest, getting caught bedding down a married woman of his flock and
fleeing from his town in disgrace. On the road without any prospects, he
encounters a troupe of itinerant actors making their way from town to town
and earning his keep by staging scenes out of the bible for an
entertainment-deprived, rural public. Offering his limited skills, Nicholas
convinces Martin (Willem Dafoe), the troupe's main man, to accept him into
the ensemble against Tobias' (Brian Cox) grousing against it. Martin's
sister Sarah (Gina McKee), on the other hand, is quick to overcome her
initial distrust and soon develops a growing affection for the fairhaired
newbie. As her eyes increasingly fasten on him, she brings a hint of sexual
tension to the scenario.
When they arrive at a small town ruled by an overlord, they learn that an
attractive woman, a deaf mute, is to be hanged for murdering a young boy.
Watching the crowd gathering around the condemned figure from a castle that
dominates the community is its slimy ruler, Lord Robert de Guise (Vincent
When certain facts about the crime come to Martin's and Nicholas' attention,
they begin to wonder if the unfortunate woman did, indeed, do the crime.
Contradicting what we expect of such an unempowered group in England's dark
ages, the band of players cast themselves as real live investigators. Martin
and Nicholas arrange an in-cell interview with the accused before she's
marched to the gallows and, after uncovering her side of the story, Martin
sees the possibilities in it for a new bit of staged subject matter, a major
departure from traditional (biblical) sources. Are we witnessing the first
historical example of grass-roots activism and totalitarian uprisings?
Calling his play, "The Murder Of Thomas Wells", he dares to devise a script
and set of characters to recreate the crime, expose the coverup, and rouse
the people to rebel against the injustice that's about to be committed by the
powerful political figures of the town.
The villains who seek to escape guilt by scapegoating the innocent are
unmasked. The vileness of their depravity resonates markedly with recently
exposed sex crimes of the modern church. It's a medieval detective story
with a theatrical twist borrowing from today's headlines. As directed by
Paul McGuigan from a script by Mark Mills adapted from the
novel of Barry Unsworth, it develops considerable tension
as a new set of heroes act with clever determination to correct an injustice.
The Dalai Lama couldn't have done it any better.
Defoe, Bettany and Cox are actors who, it may be said, are masters at
stretching a moment. Let loose, each one has been guilty of milking a scene
enough to feed a nursery. Through most of this scenario, however, the
exacting requirements of the story seems to have kept them in fine
disciplinary control and they deliver tightly controlled performances...
until their impulses are unchained in the last act. The inevitable
confrontation between the good guys and the fiendish perpetrator (the title
moment) brings out the highblown speeches that are a one-way ticket to
melodrama. Self-righteousness abounds, Bettany gives way to his worst
tendencies, Defoe demonstrates his double-jointed yoga routine (for some
unexplained reason), drama does a backbend, and the originality of the
concept is nearly fractured. But, standing up for morality by enacting a
play earns some applause for innovation.
Peter Sova's cinematography captures detail and textures while richly
balancing obscure interior darkness against the bright light of day. His
tonal desaturation in portraiture of people and photography of landscape are
effective contributions to the bleak nature of the subject, as are those from
all supporting technical departments.
~~ Jules Brenner