Set in England in 1380, this medieval murder mystery signals its serious intent by being dark and moody and by having minor-key cello music slither ominously on the sound track. After a disorienting opening, a series of bewildering close-ups no doubt means to cue us that we’re entering an alien world before the film settles into its conventional narrative.
Francis is a priest on the lam after having committed adultery and, as is suggested by menacing yet vague flashbacks, something worse. He encounters and joins a group of traveling actors, led by Martin, played by Willem Dafoe. The group arrives in a town to put on some of their religious plays but, largely through the persistence of Francis and Martin, the troupe becomes involved in the case of a deaf-mute woman who’s been charged with murdering a young boy.
All this is mildly interesting but the movie really drops the ball when it comes to addressing — or dramatizing — its larger underlying theme. The film is set during a period when the theater transformed from a religious to a secular enterprise, and it’s up to Dafoe’s character to have the big Eureka! moment of conceptual breakthrough.
Having become convinced that the deaf woman is innocent and finding the townspeople unwilling to talk about it, Martin decides to put on a play dramatizing the murder, hoping that it will loosen tongues. His fellow players are uneasy at the prospect of doing something that may be blasphemous but he persuades them, saying that the production of such dramas is “the wave of the future,” or words to that effect.
That this new kind of drama gets used against an old kind of evil is another idea that gets lost.
For all its pretense and clever directorial touches, this is a pretty old-fashioned film. The villain looks like a villain, his henchmen look like henchmen, you pretty much know where everything’s headed (and can easily guess Francis’ guilty secret), and the complicated historical metamorphosis of theatre is reduced to Willem Dafoe having a bright idea.
The exotic setting aids this routine tale, but there’s a slackness in the telling. Besides, any film where actors as interesting as Brian Cox and Gina McKee are severely underused simply isn’t trying hard enough.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.