Maître Richard Courtois (Firth), a lawyer, has left Paris with his clerk Mathieu, traveling to Abbeville in Ponthieu, then part of Burgundy rather than France, for what they believe will be a quiet, rural existence. However, the first thing they witness on arriving in the town is a man condemned for bestiality about to be hanged at the side of the donkey he sodomized. Then a pardon is given due to a mass petition from the villagers... on the donkey's behalf, who is deemed innocent, while the convicted man is hanged. After this strange arrival, Courtois quickly takes up many backlogged cases.
As he navigates the local law in court, Courtois finds work defending local clients. Courtois fails to save a client accused of witchcraft because Ponthieu law differs in a way he did not know from the Roman French law. Courtois defends a pig belonging to some Moors when it is charged with murdering a Jewish boy. They are desperate to save it, since the pig would be their only food over the winter, and one of them, Samira, even offered to sleep with him if he takes the case (Courtois declines her offer). He quickly learns there is more to the case than what appears at first glance, as the local lord tries various ways of influencing him toward losing. The lord's children are shown to be eccentric or mad, and it is revealed that the family has a dark past.
The case appears lost when the lord exercises his feudal right and prepares to decide the trial personally, but then it is adjourned for Advent. Courtois declines advice from the prosecutor that he return to Paris, where greater opportunity awaits him, and commissions a house in Abbeville. While laying the foundation, however, the body of another Jewish boy killed a year earlier is uncovered. Courtois begins to suspect that a human killer was responsible, and his client has been falsely accused.
The film contains examples of the following tropes:
- Bestiality Is Depraved: The very first sight Courtois arrives to in Abbeville is a man who's going to hang because he had sex with a donkey, who is condemned beside him. At the last moment though, a pardon arrives from the lord-for the donkey, who's deemed innocent.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The film is highly realistic in showing the life of Renaissance-era Europeans. While extremely bizarre to us, they not only take seriously the idea that animals can commit crimes, but actually try them for this with full court proceedings, including appointed defense lawyers. Discrimination toward Jews and Moors is not only rampant but enshrined in the law, with a Jewish man noting his testimony isn't admissible as evidence. In contrast to modern people who might have thought Christians in those days more prudish, they are quite casual about being nude at a bathhouse even with members of the opposite sex around. They'll even just have sex with someone else right next door (and prostitution is fairly open, along with being entirely legal). Religion holds pride of place in social life, with all work stopping when Advent begins, while both mores and laws stem from Christian beliefs (either for better or worse). Also, in contrast to popular conceptions, the village priest expresses skepticism of witchcraft (though inaccurate in portraying this as heretical). When it's set, witchcraft had only begun to even be accepted as real by the Church (unfortunately).
- Destructo-Nookie: A downplayed example, but Maria while having sex with Courtois puts her foot through a nearby (presumably thin) wall.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Albertus, the village priest, briefly does a double take as a nude nun walks past him in the bathhouse (just as he was discussing which people one shouldn't view naked per the Bible), greeting her and then crossing himself.
- The Dung Ages: Averted. The characters are shown as largely clean (with some peasants not as much, but that may just be after a hard day's work) and going to a bathhouse. In fact, it may be unrealistic, since by the time the bathing culture had deteriorated after the Plague (bathhouses were a disease vector and often closed).
- Erotic Dream: Courtois has one of Samira just before he gets woken up by the maid, who sees how "happy" it made him, and... they have sex.
- Fanservice Extra: At one point, Filette doffs her dress in front of Courtois, standing before him completely naked for no apparent reason, laughing (her family has mental illness commonly). Later in the bathhouse a nun also walks past in the nude, and a couple other minor female characters are shown while topless.
- Foreshadowing: Jeannine's prophecy says the towns people will be delivered from their wickedness by a knight. In the end, one arrives... with the plague, which they'll be "delivered" from permanently.
- Hairy Girl: Accurately for the era, all women who show them have unshaved pubic areas.
- The Immodest Orgasm: Maria gets very loud when she comes to climax while having sex with Courtois.
- Kangaroo Court: The Ponthieu court has strong elements of this with its animal and witchcraft trials, though this is all Truth in Television.
- Karma Houdini: The real killer, the Seigneur's son, is protected from consequences by his father and isn't even around to be killed by the plague at the end as he was sent to England for treatment.
- Letting Her Hair Down: Maria does this along with removing her head covering prior to having sex with Courtois.
- Make the Dog Testify: During the climactic court procedure, a pig is offered the chance to confess to killing a boy by squealing twice, and gets jabbed from behind to cause it to make such sounds.
- Ms. Fanservice: Sophie Dix as the maid Maria shows full nudity in her sex scene. Along with her is Amina Anabi to a lesser degree as Samira, who's topless a couple times, once in a sex scene too (though far less explicit).
- Off on a Technicality: Played straight at first, and then inverted terribly. Jeannine, accused of witchcraft, has a charge dismissed this way, but then gets convicted due to an aspect of Ponthieu law Courtois didn't know about.
- Our Nudity Is Different: It's accurately shown that Renaissance Europeans had a very casual view over nudity, even with the opposite sex. Men and women are bathing freely in the bathhouse. Courtois even discusses this with the village priest, who's in a tub with him, asking about its morality. The priest replies that it's only immoral if the person is your close relative, like a sister (he then gets distracted as a nude nun walks by).
- Prophecy Twist: Jeannine's prophecy from the gallows that a fine knight will come to deliver the people of Abbeville from their lies and evil. At the end of the film, a knight does arrive... carrying the Black Plague. So they are "delivered" by dying from it.
- Public Bathhouse Scene: Courtois has a conversation with the priest while they're in the town bathhouse at one point. As a result, the priest is briefly distracted by the sight of a nude nun going past them.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: After he sends his Serial Killer son out of town, the Siegneur cheerfully agrees with a sarcastic comment about how separate laws apply to the rich.
- Serendipitous Survival: Thoroughly disillusioned with the village, Courtois heads back to Paris and departs right as a knight brings the plague to the village.
- Serial Killer: The Seigneur's son, who targets the Jewish boys as their low status makes them highly vulnerable (Jews couldn't testify in court, for instance) and he can get away with it more easily. Of course his father being their lord helps as well.
- Truth in Television: As stated above, the animal trials really occurred, with many events the film depicts based on actual cases. Maître Richard Courtois was also based on a real man, Bartholomew Chassenee, famous as an advocate in 16th-century France. The skepticism of the priest toward witchcraft is also probable, since the Catholic Church mostly disclaimed it then. Thus it's unlikely another priest or him would be burned for denying it, as he claims.
- Witch Hunt: One erupts as Jeannine, a woman in Abbeville, is accused of enchanting the rats to eat the crops. Despite the defense of her lawyer nearly succeeding, Jeannine is convicted and hanged.