The Reckoning (2020)

The Reckoning first published by

The text with which Neil Marshall’s The Reckoning opens reveals that it is “England 1665, Year of the Great Plague”, adding that it is “the time of the witch finders.” Coming out in another year of plague in England, the film certainly re-echoes down the ages to the present – and its key themes (the vicious hypocrisy of patriarchy, the horror of misogyny) also resonate uncomfortably with contemporary times and concerns. Plus ça change…

Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk, who also co-wrote with Edward Evers-Swindell and Marshall) is a young woman struggling to keep her head above water in a man’s world. Still grieving the recent suicide of her plague-ridden husband Joseph (Joe Anderson), she is left with a baby daughter Abby and a farm that she can no longer afford to keep. When she defends herself against the forceful overtures of the local squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington) who has come demanding more than just the rent, he vindictively puts it about town that she is a witch, and she is soon in prison and facing interrogation by notorious witchfinder Judge Moorcroft (Marshall regular Sean Pertwee), her eventual execution a foregone conclusion. Grace has met Moorcroft before: when she was seven years old, he made her mother Jane (Emma Campbell-Jones) confess to being a witch, and had Jane burnt at the stake before Grace’s eyes. Now, with her mother’s last words (“Always stay true to yourself, let no one tell you who you are”) still ringing in her ears, Grace herself refuses to confess, enduring days of horrific torture.

All the talk of devils and witches is realised as Grace is repeatedly visited by the ghosts of Joseph and Jane, and even by the Devil himself (Ian Whyte, with horns and wings). In this way, Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Hellboy) is able to indulge his love of horror, crafting a rich gothic atmosphere, Hammer-style, from his locations in Hungary. Yet all these apparitions and demonic incursions are merely dreams and delirium, as Grace goes through an ordeal of physical trauma and exhaustion and her mind wanders. The real horror here is her mistreatment by her landlord, by the local community and by the representatives of the Church. As such, Grace becomes a Joan of Arc figure, expressing her resistance through suffering, and an outright refusal to utter the lie that her tormentors want to hear from her. 

Charlotte Kirk as Grace Haverstock

There is at work here, however, a very modern impulse to see our passive heroine become an active avenger, and so Grace emerges as a sword-wielding fighter, literally sticking it to the man and burning the whole patriarchal system to the ground. Which is all very well as a crowd-pleasing gesture of wish-fulfilment fantasy, but may strike some viewers as highly improbable given that the torments which we see being inflicted over four long days on Grace’s body would leave her maimed for life, and certainly in no fit state to rise up against her oppressors. Neither the screenplay nor Kirk’s performance ever really has us believing in Grace’s harrowing, crippling ordeal. Put simply, while Grace is no witch, it would certainly require a witch to walk, run, fight and swim with the sort of grave injuries – both external and internal – that Grace has sustained just hours prior to her violent insurrection. Here the gravity of realism gives way to fancy-dress artifice. 

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps we really are meant to see Grace’s triumph as pure escapist fantasy, and to contrast it with the much harsher reality of what happened to women in those times. After all, as text at the end of the film reminds us, “It is estimated that up to 500,000 women were tried, tortured and executed for the crime of witchcraft in Europe and North America.” Yet for the most part, The Reckoning itself feels like a jolly romp. For it is a cheesy, bawdy tale of torture and revenge, and while it is certainly riffing on classic witchfinder films like Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), it comes closer to the cruel camp of Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (1970), or even of Monty Python. These wild tonal shifts – from serious feminist cri de cœur to saucy pantomime – suggest an incoherence of vision, but may of course eventually also bring the film a certain cult status. 

The Reckoning is a slick, glossy production, with a rich orchestral score – but this also makes it bland and undistinguished, where it might have benefited from being rougher around the edges. You can see it flexing to be a heroine-led rebellious retelling of resonant past horrors akin to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018) or Thomas Clay’s Fanny Lye Deliver’d (2019) – but it lacks those films’ intensity, urgency or grit, and keeps undermining its own sobriety with ale-chugging semi-comic excess. Here, as Marx would have it, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. 

Summary: Neal Marshall’s plague-time myth of a ‘witch’ turning on her accusers is part serious feminist outcry, part bawdy farce.

© Anton Bitel