As Nicholas, a monk on the lam after he's caught committing adultery, Paul Bettany ("Master and Commander") conveys the man's doubts and decency but, like everyone here, serves more as mouthpiece than flesh-and-blood character. He joins an itinerant actors' troupe, led by siblings Martin (Willem Dafoe) and Sarah (Gina McKee), that's struggling to compete with the visual effects of more monied theater companies. In a village where a deaf-dumb healer (Elvia Minguez) has been sentenced to death for the murder of a boy, Martin has a creative inspiration. He substitutes the real-life story for their usual biblical repertoire--one of several clunky instances meant to convey the birth of modernism. While Martin pursues an audience, Nicholas pursues truth and justice, and the actors' research uncovers corruption in high places. The resulting morality play culminates in theatre-as-trial, Bettany's lapsed monk presenting forensic evidence like a hotshot D.A. in primetime.
"Those who seek justice fall prey to it" is one of the provocative notions that is voiced in the script but devoid of impact. The ham-fisted dramatization overlays contemporary attitudes on the 14th-century setting in a supremely unconvincing manner, while the pallid character dynamics inspire only gape-mouthed wonder. Design detail and strong widescreen lensing of Spanish and British locations are for naught. Starring Willem Dafoe, Paul Bettany, Brian Cox, Gina McKee, Simon McBurney, Elvira Minguez, Ewan Bremner and Vincent Cassell. Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Mark Mills. Produced by Caroline Wood. A Paramount Classics release. Historical drama. Rated R for some sexuality and violent images. Running time: 110 min