The Reckoning. 2020.
Directed by Neil Marshall.
Screenplay by Marshall, Charlotte Kirk, & Edward Evers-Swindell.
Starring Charlotte Kirk, Joe Anderson, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Ian Whyte, Bill Fellows, Mark Ryan, Cal MacAninch, & Emma Holzer.
Buffalo 8 Productions / BondIt Media Capital / Fourth Culture Films
Not Rated / 106 minutes
History / Horror
DISCLAIMER: This essay contains SPOILERS!
All hope abandon ye who enter here.
Neil Marshall has consistently impressed me, from the big screen to his work in TV. I’d seen The Descent before going back to watch Dog Soldiers. Both convinced me he was a name to keep watching in the horror genre. His later work on an important episode of the Hannibal series cemented his horror status. Centurion showed that Marshall was interested in aspects of history, continuing with his work on the show Black Sails. His talent for action is undeniable, too. He and Game of Thrones were a perfect fit for his two wild episodes. Now Marshall’s taken that Game of Thrones experience, all his love of horror and history, mashed it together, and created a fantastic period piece about the early modern period of English history.
The Reckoning travels back to 1665 and tells the story of Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk). She faces the suicide of her husband when he contracts the plague, not long after the birth of their child. When a squire called Pendleton (Steven Waddington) tries to take advantage of Grace and she fends him off he turns the locals against her. Grace is quickly thrown in a cell and charged with being a witch. Things get worse once a face from her past— a fierce and unforgiving witch hunter, Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee)— is brought in to secure Grace’s confession.
What’s so special to me is Marshall’s delivered a film about early modern history that speaks so directly to so many pressing issues we continue to face today as a global society. We’re even in the midst of our own mini-plague as I write, and, like the Great Plague of London and other instances of the bubonic plague, people are still trying to find their scapegoats. The Reckoning is about more than just the plague and living during a time of religious superstition ruling over logic. It’s chiefly about the misogyny exercised by men in power and the violently cruel forms such power often takes, like the horrors of the early modern witch hunts.
The thin veil between life and death during the early modern period is seen in the opening sequence of Grace burying her husband after only recently having a child. This is a symbolic cradle-to-grave image illustrating how quickly new life springs up even in the midst of death, but also how quickly death could occur at that time of history in spite of a person being at the prime of their life. More stark imagery comes when Grace goes into town and sees death lining the streets— there are sick people everywhere, plague doctors in their horrifying masks, and, worst of all, a dog eating a corpse. Marshall’s film, from start to finish, is ripe with images that make you feel like you can actually smell the festering wounds of the Great Plague.
Another great aspect of The Reckoning is its depiction of the early modern period in contrasting the dangers of the rural with urban dangers as Grace travels into town. There are obvious downsides to the isolation of a rural environment where Grace lives, such as being further away from medical help in the 17th century. There’s also the inherently superstitious nature of rural people. However, the 17th-century urban landscape was no better because there existed those religious superstitions while cities/towns were where there existed a hub of authorities— from the church to those busy filling the jails— who were quick to punish those deemed as targets of their superstitious prejudice. At one point we hear the oft repeated quote “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” a line that comes from Exodus 22:18. Nothing worse or more tyrannical than the convergence of authority, power, and religion.
And, naturally, who were the biggest targets of prejudice? Women.
“I must persist”
What makes this film standout for me as especially important is how Marshall depicts all the ways misogyny played into the witch hunts. A significant moment in the story involves Kate (Sarah Lambie) and her husband when she sees Grace’s resistance to Moorcroft. It empowers her to not remain quiet. Her husband then says: “All it takes is a word.” Women lived under the constant threat of being named a witch, so much so that it was a form of social control, particularly for husbands who wanted to keep their wives in line. A woman in 1665 couldn’t win, one way or another.
Even if nobody turned you in as a witch a woman who didn’t get the plague would be branded as one for supposedly using black magic to keep herself from getting ill. So a woman in the early modern period could get the plague and die, or not get the plague and probably be executed as a witch. That’s no way to live.
Those are the unfortunate side effects of being a woman in the early modern period, when superstition merged with misogynistic values and sexist ideas, crystallising into a horrifically misguided hunt for supposed witches. The crowned jewel of early modern misogyny in The Reckoning is embodied in Judge Moorcroft’s use of the pear of anguish— sexual torture in the name of Christ, “God‘s work.” What’s most disturbing and effective about this scene is Moorcroft charges Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) with performing the torture, doubling the weight of sexual violence by having a woman inflict such cruelty upon another woman.
Ursula’s a compelling addition to the cast of characters. She represents the internalised misogyny of patriarchy and its mechanics, using women to subjugate and, in this case, torture other women. She’s been burned by the misogynistic flame of patriarchy and because of it winds up brainwashed by the trauma of living through being burned at the stake. We see Grace beginning to go the way of Ursula at one point during her captivity. She dreams of the devil, occasionally bordering on eroticism, evidence she’s beginning to break. She nearly starts to believe, as Ursula does, that the men are right and she’s a witch. Somehow she’s still able to resist the internalised misogyny that’s being all but literally beaten into her.
A period piece can run off the rails for any variety of reasons, and Marshall avoids the majority of the usual mistakes made in other similar films. The Reckoning mostly does well with historical fact, albeit with a couple minor inconsistencies. The level of attention to detail in the costumes and set design certainly helps whisk us back to the second half of the 17th century. On top of that, the film’s entertaining. The story’s a fresh one that starts off running and never slows down until the credits roll. Easily one of the best witch hunt films there’s been.
Marshall’s The Reckoning confronts the violent abuses of power committed by men in the early modern history. It parallels with the systemic misogyny and sexism we continue to see rampant today in all facets of life, not only in the film and TV industry as we’ve seen in the news more the past few years but in our everyday lives. This film shows how the systemic misogyny of our societal institutions trickles its way down from places of power into the blood stream of society, ensuring patriarchy’s circulation. Though Grace is clearly capable of taking on such a system, brutally battling to stay alive and retain her dignity, like so many women before and so many after, the system must be dismantled and it’ll take everyone’s help to destroy.