Neil Marshall and Charlotte Kirk combine their creative forces to craft a story about the strength of one woman’s resolve after being accused of witchcraft.
Set during the Great Plague, Grace Haverstock (Kirk) is dealt an unjust card when her loving husband gets sick and takes his own life to save her and their baby, Abby. Although this loss should be bad enough, Grace is a young and beautiful widow, which makes her the target of a greedy and sadistic landlord. After a contentious interaction with him, Grace is accused of being a witch, simply because she’s a woman who stood her ground.
The narrative of this film is centred around the baseless accusations directed at women during the witch trials. Women who did not conform to society? Witch. Women who miraculously survived a deadly illness? Witch. Women who defend themselves from unwanted sexual advances? Witch. Women who are anything other than docile creatures who bend to the will of men Witch, Women who exist? Witch. For the most part Marshall and Kirk stew in the injustice of the situation, however, neither the script nor Kirk’s performance as Grace is interested in interrogating this any further.
Marshall is well known for having a keen eye for horror, however, much of what folks enjoyed of The Descent is seemingly missing here. He opts for a more languid approach, emphasizing Grace’s quiet determination. The horror of the film lies within the text and the implied violence done to Grace, and if the narrative of a woman’s resolve being greater than those who wish to oppress her was stronger, then the lack of overt horror would stand out less.
Despite a handful of frightening images of the Devil himself, the film falls into a strange pitfall where it is more interested in seeing Grace as a beautiful and sexually active woman, maligned by a great injustice. Perhaps, the more horrifying element of the film is its seemingly mixed messaging in regards to whether Grace fornicating with the Devil is merely a figment of imagination or an actual thing that Grace is willing to do to survive. However, the strange emphasis of her writhing around with the Devil and her exposed body after a session of torture seems to lean towards a desire to sensualize her ordeal rather than have any commentary about how strong Grace’s will is in terms of maintaining her innocence and denouncing the Devil.
If the film wasn’t already so convoluted in its plot or narrative ambition, all could be forgiven if our leading lady had anything to offer. Kirk’s determination is admirable, but between her stilted line delivery and her exaggerated expressions of fear, Kirk is not able to lift the burden of the narrative off the ground. Grace as a character is easy enough to understand, but there is a hollowness in the writing and in Kirk’s often inaudible performance that makes one wonder what is it about her that we are rooting for. Sure, she is steadfast in maintaining her innocence because she is indeed innocent. But when confronted with nightmarish dreams of her loved ones and being toyed with by the Devil, Grace’s point-of-view is nowhere to be seen. She is just a “strong female character” archetype that keeps it together long enough to concoct a plan to get out and that’s that.
Marshall and Kirk are seemingly satisfied with simply pointing at Grace’s ordeal and point-blank calling it grotesque without further developing the root of the injustice or the latent consequences of the whole situation. Besides Grace, most characterizations are one-dimensional, leaving us with a very black and white situation. Grace is good. Everyone else is bad. Perhaps this narrative would have been best served as a series and not a near two-hour movie. There is much to be explored in regards to the mob mentality that pits entire communities against innocent women. There are also a couple of women in the film that fall on different sides of the witch-hunt spectacle that could have also been developed further, namely Grace as the accused, the unnamed “Gypsy” who turns on Grace, Mary, Grace’s friend who is appalled by the whole situation, and finally, Ursula a loyal follower of Judge Moorcroft the witch hunter. Each represents a different role a woman had during this time, and yet the narrative is so barebones it never does anything with these complex dynamics.
All in all, The Reckoning neither reckons with its subject matter nor attempts to. A great concept alone cannot make for a great film.
The Reckoning is available to stream on Shudder.
by Ferdosa Abdi