Robert Catesby (Kit Harington) is a committed Catholic at a time when Protestant England persecutes Catholics relentlessly. The authorities directed by King James's Spymaster-in-Chief Robert Cecil (Gatiss), hunt down, torture and execute priests while lay Catholics are subject to oppression and the loss of their property. They must practice their religion in secret, risking imprisonment, fines, harassment and even death. Catesby's refusal to abandon his religion has brought him to the edge of financial, social and psychological ruin. His wife and father have both recently died, leaving him to bring up a young son in an increasingly hostile world. Unable to stand by while his coreligionists suffer, and despite the peaceful protestations of head Jesuit Father Garnet (Peter Mullan) doing nothing is not an option for a man like Catesby. He starts to recruit friends and relatives, swearing them to secrecy as he devises an audacious plan. His astute and capable cousin Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler) becomes suspicious about his activities and fears the consequences will be the exact opposite of what Catesby intends. This fast-paced 17th century thriller delves into the history behind the plot evolution, the selection of the team to carry it out, the gathering of the resources, and the obstacles they came up against. At the same time a deadly cat and mouse game is played out with Cecil's ruthless spy network.
Many reviewers have complained that that the film lacks spark: what it may lack in wall-to-wall Hollywood violence it gains in drawn-out and sustained tension. Certainly the opening scene is a good example of this where the King's authorities are searching for the hidden recusants. The violence of the age, the methods of torture, are barely suggested and largely left to the imagination though historical accounts are graphically hideous in reality. There is a sympathy for the persecuted Catholics, presented as sincere believers where the king's Protestant court are generally portrayed as pragmatic and hypocritical so-called God-fearers. I particularly liked the set of dark, claustrophobic back streets of London. The dialogue was a fair attempt at contemporary language, rich in metaphor and laconic statement.