A troupe of medieval actors looking to freshen up their material expose a serial murderer in this moody, oddly compelling period drama. England, 1380: The black plague rages, peasants are routinely abused and exploited by knights and lords, the authority of the church is absolute and death by famine is an ever-present threat. Disgraced monk Nicholas de Valette (Paul Bettany) exchanges his harsh, small-town post for the harsher life of a rootless fugitive after he's caught in a compromising position with a parishioner's comely wife. Nicholas finds a measure of refuge with a band of traveling actors whose leader has just died; his son, Martin (Willem DaFoe), who has assumed his father's mantle, agrees to let Nicholas join. Other members of the company — notably elder statesman Tobias (Brian Cox), protest — but they're short a man and there are minor roles to be played. Forced to stop at a small town under the protection of Lord de Guise (Vincent Cassell), they arrive as a local woman, Martha (Elvira Minguez), accused and convicted of murdering a youth named Thomas Wells, is being condemned to death. In need of cash to pay for food, lodging and repairs to their wagon, the players put on one of their stock biblical morality plays, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But they earn so little that they're forced to come up with a new way to raise money. Martin's radical idea: They'll perform an original morality play illustrating God's principles by using a real-life story — Wells' dreadful murder and Martha's righteous punishment. But when Martin and Nicholas investigate the facts, troubling inconsistencies in the official story emerge. How did a woman strangle a strapping lad — strong as an ox, everyone swears — with her bare hands? Why did the man who found the body say it was stiff when young Thomas must have been dead for days? And what of the other murdered boys — how could Martha have killed them all? Director Paul McGuigan's adaptation of Barry Unsworth's 1995 novel Morality Play transplants a modern mystery story, complete with a touch of rudimentary crime-scene investigation, to 14th-century England and the result is an intriguing mix of the familiar and the alien. DaFoe's distinctly American speech patterns are a little jarring amid a tangle of British inflections (French actor Cassel's accent is justified within the story), but it doesn't spoil the film's overall effect.
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- Released: 2004
- Rating: R
- Review: A troupe of medieval actors looking to freshen up their material expose a serial murderer in this moody, oddly compelling period drama. England, 1380: The black plague rages, peasants are routinely abused and exploited by knights and lords, the authority o… (more)