William of Baskerville (Connery), a Franciscan monk, is asked to help his brothers at a Benedictine Abbey in determining the cause of death of one of their own. When monks start falling like dominoes, William and his young aide (Slater) must acquit the wrongly accused and find the murderer before the Holy Inquisition starts busting heads.
The first thing to consider with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s frothy and memorable adaptation of Umberto Eco’s wonderful mediaeval thriller, is how he found so many willing grotesques blessed with fine acting talents to populate his movie. The procession of cantankerous monks is like the order of the Hills Have Eyes, a bunch of baldy freaks assailed by the icy air and pummeling medieval deprivation. Their hilltop home a stone outcrop of holy hell allowing the story to drip with an intense near-horror movie mood of impending doom. Finding naked monks in vats of blood helps with the general pessimism.
In one of the roles that came to reinvent Connery as an excellent character actor and not just the man-who-was-Bond, William of Baskerville is a revelation, a transfixing mix of intellect and wit, possessed of the kind of irreligious thinking that would eventually bring about the Renaissance. Part of the purpose of both Eco’s and the host of screenwriters Annaud employed to unearth a workable script from the novel’s dense detail, is to expose the conflict between religion and rationalism. Indeed, as if they didn’t need anymore bad news, the Inquisition is soon to pay a call and start burning fetching kitchen maids as witches.
Seen through the eyes of a perplexed Christian Slater, as William’s innocent apprentice, the plot unravels as an agonizing tease, its various secrets torturously nudged into the cold light as the monk corpses pile up. Annaud is also sly enough to keep the grip of belief front and centre, keenly creating one of the most original whodunits of recent years out of one of those so-called “unfilmmable” books.
Connery convinces in his cassock and, though the themes will not capture everyone's interest, this is a refreshing, inventive whodunit.