As the plague rages across England, a young widow with a baby daughter is accused of witchcraft.
I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried to draw a Venn diagram of misogynists through the ages and the wearing of ridiculous headwear, but I bet there’s a considerable overlap.
There are horrible hats a-plenty in Neil Marshall’s new witch hunt film The Reckoning, though most of the shocks themselves probably aren’t frightening enough for seasoned horror fans, and many of the jump scares are repeated. I’m not even sure if its diabolical horrors are meant to be supernatural, or simply the result of more earthly factors.
Actually the most potent horror comes when we discover how many women were murdered for alleged witchcraft in Europe and North America.
What lifts the film are some striking visuals, along with an understanding of the mechanics of persecution and how accusers, mostly men, have leveraged them (even if the execution – excuse the pun – is clunky).
It’s set in 1665 during the Great Plague, though the persecution it relates isn’t time-specific. Women have always been blamed simply for being women, and all that seems to change is the vigour and the openness of such persecution.
Often there is something else raging, providing an extra official impetus. The population in The Reckoning is faced with a disease that spreads like magic and leaves its victims dying in agony, surely either a godly punishment or a satanic weapon.
Grace (Charlotte Kirk) lives in a remote cottage in Northern England with her husband Joseph and baby daughter Abi. He catches the plague from a man in the local tavern; knowing he is doomed he hangs himself from a tree while she is out looking for herbs. The first scenes show Grace having to dig his grave and cut him down during a nighttime downpour, intercut with bucolic flashbacks of their life together before it all went wrong.
While this is primarily a historical revenge thriller with added soft focus nudity and some torture, inevitably watching it in a COVID-19 world there is more to see here than “just” a rage against the patriarchy. “Our” pandemic has brought with it that familiar scapegoating too.
The atmosphere in 1665 is heady with death, blame and suspicion, and already one elderly woman has been arrested on charges of witchcraft. Soon the Squire (Steven Waddington) who owns Grace’s cottage, is demanding sexual favours in lieu of rent. When she refuses he convinces the locals she’s a witch.
Much of the rest of the film takes place over the days of Grace’s interrogation. The Squire wants a confession of witchcraft; the witchfinder he brings in, John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), is apparently doing God’s work (though he leaves it to other women to do the actual work).
For Grace, believing she will die anyway, it becomes a battle of wills that she not give in to the horrific tortures Moorcroft subjects her to, tortures that still leave her looking barely dishevelled. Her near-perfect make-up and hair give proceedings the air of a 1980s miniseries (there’s a soapy melodramatic feel to it anyway), and work against how victims would be othered – once you take away what makes someone look like an individual, sympathy often seeps away.
Pertwee’s Moorcroft certainly has a hammy side, though despite the very uneven dialogue he brings out the common contradictions in the men who love God but hate women. Moorcroft lets his personal loathing dictate his punishments, but he also believes he is doing the Lord’s work, self-flagillating in front of a cross.
While some characters are cartoonish (the Squire, some minor characters, and at times Moorcroft) a few are more carefully drawn.
Edwin, the Squire’s young servant, becomes Grace’s only help in jail, moving from initial disquiet at his boss’s behaviour to Team Grace. It’s a sweet performance from Callum Goulden, as you see Edwin’s need to survive in a dangerous world battle his natural humanity.
The film’s feverish style does mean at times it spills over even from melodrama into comedy. Life Of Brian‘s “she turned me into a newt!” scene, and the witch from last year’s paranormal series Truth Seekers who liked to shout “bums and fannies” as she haunted her interrogation cell, kept popping unbidden into my mind.
Kirk’s performance is often one-note, and the eye-narrowing at her foe and dodgy dialogue don’t help. (She also co-wrote with Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell.) I didn’t care much what happened to Grace beyond the instant ouch factor of the tortures she endures; I was extremely concerned about her little daughter, the squidgiest baby to grace our screens for a while.
There are some good touches. I liked a killing-by-cartwheel, when a woman’s quick thinking beats brute force; and that one character’s murderous trick of switching plague-infected tankards is later his undoing.
And while the film’s elements never really form a cohesive, satisfying story, it does try to examine why people act as they do. Grace’s grief and the sleep deprivation she’s subjected to in jail cause her to hallucinate some of the very things that witches were accused of (yes she does have sex with a horned devil). Ursula (Suzanne Magowan), a woman who has been through a terrible ordeal and now assists Moorcroft, shows the unending penance required and the transference of guilt as the tormented becomes a tormentor.
There’s also an interesting – if much speeded up – scene in the tavern that illustrates a group’s switch from mockery of an accuser (in this case the Squire) to backing him up when they realise that it benefits them to do so. Soon (very soon!) the whole room considers her a witch.
Artistic licence is doing some heavy lifting, though. A woman pulled from a pyre is mostly burned, though her dress appears untouched; and everywhere is spotless. I know cleanliness is next to godliness, but these cottagecore interiors look plucked from a Sunday magazine spread about rich people escaping the rat race by playing at 17th century organic farming.
Grace survives so much physical injury one starts to wonder if she is indeed a witch, though presumably we’re meant to see her strength as drawn from her late mother and love for her baby.
Within The Reckoning are the elements of a solid historical retelling that will always resonate. These elements are jostling though; there isn’t the clarity and coolness required to join the dots on a frenzy that, like a virus, will always keep popping back up.
The middle act is too long, exploitatively so, though the film explodes back into life (and death) in the last 20 minutes. Overall though the switch from persecution drama to battle of wills to (admittedly very enjoyable) revenge just overeggs the cauldron further.
My very spoilery article about the ending is here – Witch watch: The Reckoning ending explained
RLJE Films and Shudder released The Reckoning in cinemas, on demand and on digital on 5 February 2021. It’s out in the UK on 16 April 2021.
Watch the trailer now: