Dir: Paul McGuigan. UK. 2001. 110mins.

Paul Bettany's penchant for diverse roles spanning the eras continues in the intriguing but lethargic medieval murder mystery The Reckoning, a long finished drama shot in 2001, even before Bettany made his leap into Hollywood with A Beautiful Mind.

This time Bettany is a fugitive priest who joins forces with a travelling acting troupe in rural England to solve a string of murders involving dead young males and feudal corruption. Theatrical prospects are grim for this belatedly engrossing story that fails to hit its stride until well after the 45-minute mark. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a period mystery that pales in comparison to the similar medieval yarn The Name Of The Rose, which grossed $7m domestically but more than made up for it with a spectacular $70m international take in 1986.

The Reckoning won't come close to The Rose in international territories, although Bettany's name and the genre elements of the story could give it a stronger chance of success as a TV and video title. After one week the film has taken around $19,000 from five screens in the US, extending its release by a further 15 screens this weekend.

Bettany's star is on the rise after his impressive turn in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. Here the genre-hopping Brit descended further in history to play Nicholas, a parish priest who abandons his calling after a bout of adultery in plague-ridden 14th-century rural England. Hitting the road in disguise, the tormented outlaw hooks up with a wandering theatrical troupe led by Martin (Dafoe), a self-professed master player eager to deviate from the austere Biblical dramas that were the dominant form of entertainment in an era when Church and State were intertwined.

The group arrives in a village embroiled in the murder trial of a deaf mute woman accused of killing a young man. Martin, sensing injustice, convinces his colleagues to act out the prisoner's story in hopes of convincing the townspeople of her innocence. Determined to extricate himself from his own guilty transgressions, Nicholas slips into the role of amateur sleuth, unearthing a criminal conspiracy that leads to the highest echelon of feudal society.

Based on the 1996 novel Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, The Reckoning examines political corruption in the Middle Ages and the role entertainment played in transforming society from austerity to modernity. Adapted for the screen by Mark Mills, shrewdly preserving Unsworth's eye for present-day concerns, the engrossing story exudes a contemporary resonance that rewards patient viewers with the exhilarating possibilities inherent in art that seeks to effect change in corrupt times.

This agitprop message applies now more than ever, lending The Reckoning an urgency that feels muddled amid its measured pace, subdued performances (with the exception of a hammy, high camp late-hour turn by Vincent Cassell as a ruthless lord) and lackluster visual flair. Dafoe's frequent bouts of bodily contortion suggest a glam-era Iggy Pop more than a medieval theatrical player.

Bettany delivers another masterful performance that places him among the more reliable upstart leading males. But the ensemble cast (including a muted Brian Cox and Gina McKee as acting-troupe colleagues) manages to both stifle and overwhelm his talents. Whenever Dafoe is on screen opposite Bettany, which is for much of the film, their interplay is dominated by the tortured sanctimony that has become Dafoe's stock in trade.

McGuigan's directorial skills, serviceable despite the use of modern-day camerawork, seem better suited to the more frenetic setting of his previous effort, Gangster No. 1, which also starred Bettany. Despite a visually stunning decor (McGuigan and his production designer Andrew McAlpine constructed an entire medieval village out of an abandoned gold mine in Almeira, Spain) the film's pervasive austerity and lugubrious drive seem certain to alienate audiences rather than draw them in.

Prod co: Renaissance Films
US dist:
Paramount Classics
Int'l sales:
Renaissance Films
Caroline Wood
Mark Mills
Peter Sova
Prod des:
Andrew McAlpine
Andrew Hulme
Adrian Lee and Mark Mancina
Main cast:
Willem Dafoe, Paul Bettany, Brian Cox, Gina McKee, Tom Hardy, Ewen Bremner, Vincent Cassel