The Crusades, carried out by Christians who warped the word of God into something repellant and sadistic, are the backdrop of a road-trip adventure in Pilgrimage, a convincing period drama that ultimately shifts away from its thoughtful roots and toward the road-trip-adventure part of the set-up. It's an underwhelming shift for multiple reasons, not least because there are several avenues down which Jamie Hannigan's screenplay could have traveled. An ultimate confrontation with a villain of sorts, whose complicated points of view are greatly diminished when his allegiance becomes a plot point, seems the wrong way to go.
Taking place between the Fourth and Fifth Crusades in the year 1209, the narrative primarily rallies behind Brother Diarmuid (Tom Holland), the youngest within a monastery established to protect a stone with apparently magical power. In a prologue, set more than 1,100 years earlier we see the origin of that legend: A sinner was condemned to a brutal stoning, and the rock to be protected later by the monks is the one that finished the job, even as the stormy weather circulating above them seemed to protest the execution. The stone, it is said, burns people alive.
It also, as with any religious iconography, has the power to possess the hearts of men, and after a lengthy introduction to the residents of the monastery and to the job placed before them by a sense of duty (The monks must aid a member of the Cistercian Order, played by Stanley Weber, in transporting the relic to Rome, where it will play a role in the next Crusade), the middle section is the strongest, partly because it relies on sequences of swift, brutal combat, which are well-staged by director Brendan Muldowney, and partly because it genuinely confronts the atmosphere of religious and political tension.
There is also some investment to be had in the group of which Diarmuid is a part, particularly two of its members: Brother Ciaran (John Lynch) is the resident mentor to the young Diarmuid, later abducted and tortured for his supposed heresies, and a traveler known and referred to only as "the mute" (played by Jon Bernthal) is a warrior whom the monastery saved when he washed up on shore. Raymond De Merville (Richard Armitage), the son of a baron seeking redemption (perhaps in the wrong places), thinks he recognizes the warrior.
All the performances in this middle segment are as effective as the violence, which is savage without being overtly grotesque (although we do get, within one skirmish, a glimpse of the effects of the edge of a shield on a human head). Weber and Armitage are particularly effective at playing similar variations of corrupted souls, with the possessed monk driven to warfare and the disgraced baron's son driven to obsession. The question of who betrays whom is too much the focus of Pilgrimage, which features such a strong middle section it's almost enough to forgive the belabored intrusion of a plot where there perhaps needn't be.
Tom Holland (Brother Diarmuid), Jon Bernthal (The Mute), Stanley Weber (Brother Geraldus), Richard Armitage (Raymond De Merville), John Lynch (Brother Ciaran), Ruaidhri Conroy (Brother Rua), Hugh O'Conor (Brother Cathal), Tristan McConnell (Dugald), Eric Godon (Baron De Merville).
Directed by Brendan Muldowney and written by Jamie Hannigan.
No MPAA rating.
Released in select cities on August 11, 2017.