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‘Reckoning’ plot is thin, medieval-lite

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THE RECKONING — ** — Paul Bettany, Willem Dafoe, Gina McKee; rated R (violence, vulgarity, brief sex, profanity).

It's nothing new to see a film that is better in concept than execution, or a film that wastes a talented cast. Sadly, "The Reckoning" does both . . . which may be all that makes it noteworthy.

The notion of a murder mystery in the Middle Ages really isn't new, though this film is based on a highly regarded novel by Barry Unsworth. And the solution to this one is painfully obvious the first time the offending character appears on-screen.

That leaves the cast members scrambling to compensate for the thinness of the material, and, unfortunately, even they can't make this one watchable. Including the usually quite watchable Paul Bettany, who stars as Nicholas, a priest on the lam after having conjugal relations with one of his parishioners.

On the run, Nicholas falls in with a band of traveling actors . . . after he clears up a misunderstanding when he thinks he witnesses them committing a murder. Led by Martin (Willem Dafoe), the band gives Nicholas a job of sorts, performing minor roles in their biblical productions.

Eventually, however, this not-so-merry little band of actors must perform in a different capacity when they're put in the role of defending a mute woman (Elvira Minguez) who is sentenced to hang for the murder of a young boy. At the behest of Nicholas, they attempt to re-create the crime and find the real culprit, using testimony from the accused woman and other villagers.

It's not a bad idea for a film. And on the production side, the filmmakers do manage to get right the doom-and-gloom of the period; it feels as oppressive as medieval times must have.

Unfortunately, that doesn't make the film any better than mediocre. None of these characters or situations really hold our interest, and even Bettany, Dafoe and Brian Cox have too little to work with.

"The Reckoning" is rated R for scenes of violence (including beatings and some sexual violence, most of it shown in flashbacks) scattered use of crude sexual slang terms and religiously-based profanity, and brief, simulated sex. Running time: 110 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com