While Neil Marshall’s 1665 London-set, Great Plague drama The Reckoning has obvious allusions to our own present-day pandemic, COVID-19 wasn’t a factor in its creation being that filming occurred in 2019. The fear and paranoia that surround both eras are palpable, though, and the ways in which our current disease has been politicized beyond the point of human empathy does bear superficial similarity to the ways in which women were persecuted as witches against the backdrop that past sickness. Despite Marshall and co-writers Charlotte Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell heavily researching the period to create a historically accurate piece depicting this tragedy’s two sides, their script actually resembles a different set of headlines altogether due to the circumstances surrounding the accusations leveled at Grace Haverstock’s (Kirk) lead.
The headlines I’m talking about are those dealing with Kirk’s presence as a figure within the #MeToo movement and last year’s talk of extortion and other criminal activities in the fallout. There’s been plenty written about the harassment, abuse, and exploitation endured at the hands of Hollywood executives and her “casting couch” stories with Kevin Tsujihara and Ron Meyer so one can’t help but see them bleed through a harrowing scene pitting Grace against her landlord (Steven Waddington’s Squire Pendleton) just days after her husband’s (Joe Anderson’s Joseph) death. More than just a woman falsely accused, this character becomes a conduit for self-empowerment opposite “God-fearing” patriarchal rule. Grace has chosen to stand and fight for truth against those seeking to replace it with their own based in lies.
Things get murkier, though, with reports that Marshall (who is now engaged to Kirk) sought to use her previous relationship with Meyer to force his hand into financing a new film he’d direct with her starring. (He denies it.) Subsequent details posit the accusation was concocted to discredit them regarding the other pending sexual harassment cases, but the controversy ultimately caused the couple to cancel their virtual appearance in support of The Reckoning‘s debut at Fantasia and otherwise tainted its prospects before gaining distribution a couple months later. Should such sordid affairs be considered when judging the piece on its own? That’s up to you. I merely mention it because of the subject matter and how Grace’s journey might have been a cathartic one for Kirk to take.
As such, don’t expect a straight horror. While there’s imagery that leans that direction (thanks to Ian Whyte’s effectively sinister Devil), this is very much a dramatic war waged between accused and accuser. Whereas most women admit to witchcraft in order to end the suffering experienced by torture or to protect the families they’re leaving behind, Grace has reason to martyr herself and use the pain as a message to those who’ve been silenced by the threat of violent husbands willing to throw them to the wolves on a whim. Not only is her love already dead, but she watched her own innocent mother burn alive for sins committed by men wielding God as a weapon towards genocide. Her courage can therefore embolden others to join her side.
What we’re watching is thus a test of wills once the infamous Witch Finder Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) is sent for by Pendleton to procure a confession. He promises to do so with the help of his reformed “witch” Ursula (Suzanne Magowan)—a woman who he’s enlisted to dole out the depraved punishment he demands so that he can keep his hands clean, if not his soul. Marshall is good to not linger on the graphically misogynistic abuse, showcasing the instruments of pain before cutting after the first scream instead. We witness the aftermath both in the form of Grace’s bloodied clothing and Moorcroft’s confused desperation. And the longer things go, the greater the chance for control shifting from him to her. He needs her confession to absolve himself.
It’s not therefore an easy watch in its dark miserablism. How the town turns on Grace so swiftly if for no other reason than to distract themselves from the horrors of a plague her evil could help rationalize isn’t so different from the ways in which women are still being targeted today with smug looks of invincibility by their attackers. The more vicious Pendleton and Moorcroft are, the hungrier we become in craving Grace’s inevitable attempt at revenge against them. That she “sees” the Devil in her nightmares and starts blurring the line between Him and Joseph’s memory might prove more about aesthetic intrigue than any necessary plot progression, but you cannot deny the effect. She isn’t fighting for Satan or God. Her daughter is her sole motivation.
This is about paving a road forward for the future. It’s about punishing those who end up murdering an estimated 500,000 women so that they never dare do it again. That Grace’s mother laments “not being strong enough” before being set aflame is a bit misguided since enduring more torture wouldn’t have changed anything (the only reason it does now is because of allies like Callum Goulden’s Edwin and Sarah Lambie’s Kate), but I get the reductive way in which it pushes Grace to go further. The result leads to some memorable kills with exploding heads and decapitations as well as the charred screams of melting faces, but I’d be hard-pressed to say anything on-screen is more disturbing than the beaked plague masks worn in betrayal by neighbors.
How those masks create mood and atmosphere within the main thrust ultimately helps renders those Devil scenes as peripheral overkill, but there’s something about manifesting Grace’s inner turmoil through the seduction of evil that works. The more it happens, the more resolute she becomes when faced with Waddington’s arch villainy and Moorcroft’s nuanced treachery steeped in hubristic delusion. Kirk holds her own as the heroine hellbent on taking both out with her even if the climax ends up falling into cliché as its convenient action unfolds in a race to the finish line. For all its familiarity, however, you can’t deny its visual panache via immersive cinematography and production design. That it never embraces the supernatural element it teases is disappointing, but far from a dealbreaker.
The Reckoning opens in limited release and VOD/Digital HD on February 5.