Neil Marshall is one of the UK’s most valuable genre filmmakers, having made his directorial debut in 2002’s Dog Soldiers and then his reputation with 2005’s exceptional horror film The Descent. Subsequent films like Doomsday (2008) and Centurion (2010), while perhaps not as groundbreaking or effective, have continued to prove solidly entertaining stuff. His television work, including episodes of Constantine, Hannibal, Westworld and Game of Thrones, have both kept him busy and earned him further acclaim in recent years.
His latest film is The Reckoning, a period thriller set in 17th century England in which the grieving widow Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk) is falsely accused of witchcraft and threatened with interrogation and torture by the notorious witch hunter Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee). Now I have yet to see Marshall’s 2019 film reboot of Mike Mignola’s comic series Hellboy, so that film aside The Reckoning is far and away the worst thing that he has ever written and directed. It is a poorer film by a considerable margin too; other works have ranged from the solid to the sensational, whereas The Reckoning feels actively incompetent. It is not simply bad – it is the sort of D-grade shelf filler that threatens to ruin careers.
17th century witch hunts have a long history in cinema – particularly in the United Kingdom – and they have varied from the lustily camp to the genuinely artful. The Reckoning seems to move in multiple directions at once. On the one hand its screenplay makes an earnest but terribly ham-fisted attempt at presenting historical witch trials through a contemporary “me too” lens. It clearly endeavours to empower Grace throughout her ordeal, and condemns the misogynistic violence that she endures. At the same time it positively indulges in that violence to the point of luxuriating in it. A seedy male gaze envelops the entire picture in an ugly miasma graphic and implied tortures. A film cannot have it both ways. It cannot condemn a behaviour and entertain it at the same time. The Reckoning tries, and that proves a large part of why it is such a tiresome watch.
It also tires because the performances are actively terrible. Much attention will be paid to Charlotte Kirk as Grace, as this – her first leading film role – comes on the heels of a breathlessly torrid Hollywood scandal best described in Mark Seal’s October 2020 article for Vanity Fair. While it is true that Kirk’s performance seems remarkably wooden and affected (“She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B,” as Dorothy Parker allegedly once said of an actor), the same can largely be said of the film’s entire cast. Even Sean Pertwee, usually a dependable and enormously watchable talent in British cinema, comes across as deeply unengaged and listless. I suspect the production budget is to blame: the film looks remarkably cheap, and a lack of funds inevitably leads to a lack of time. An under-rehearsed and rapidly shot film inevitably leads to weak acting, and I get a strong sense of those circumstances here.
The film is bizarrely clean: as the film’s protagonist, Kirk spends four days under torture and still emerges with salon-quality hair and a perfect face. Everybody’s clothing appears bright and perfectly stitched. Costuming enthusiasts will want to avoid the film like the plague, given the looseness with which it regards historical accuracy. To his credit, Christopher Drake’s musical score is actually rather decent, but some atmospheric tunes are not going to save anybody.
If this film was the work of a new filmmaker, it could likely be ignored. From the director of Doomsday and Dog Soldiers it feels like a shocking disappointment. From the director of The Descent? It is an unmitigated creative tragedy.