Friday, September 14, 2012

Witchy Woman: "The Crucible" (1996)



Arthur Miller's well known stage play is a difficult work to mount. Given the theatrical style, Miller's screenplay comes close to losing the viewer in the opening hour before the actors redeem themselves in the second half of the film and save it.

Abigail (Winona Ryder) and many of the girls who live in Salem, Massachusetts in 1691 are a little repressed. They have taken to dancing in the woods with Barbados native servant Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), wishing for the love of the local boys and not doing much harm. Abigail requests the hand of the married John (Daniel Day-Lewis) at the same time the seemingly innocent ceremony goes wrong. One girl strips, Abigail kills a chicken and smears the blood on her mouth, and Abigail's uncle, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) stumbles onto the scene. He keeps the secret, until two girls in the village seem to fall ill, not waking up or communicating with anyone. One of the girls is Abigail's cousin, the reverend's daughter.

This is obviously the devil's work here, and Reverend Hale (a terrific Rob Campbell) is sent to Salem to investigate the incident. The girls become a mob, trying to cover their own behavior by naming anyone they can think of as witches. They fake mass hysteria to make their point, but Abigail still has designs on John, and decides to move wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) out of the picture with a false accusation. The deputy governor of Massachusetts (Paul Scofield) and his council are called in to try the cases, and the girls realize it is too late to turn back now.

The story then shifts to John and his efforts to protect his now pregnant wife. He must admit to having an affair with Abigail (which is true), but then stands accused of witchcraft himself. As the village becomes caught up in the fever of hatred, the executions begin...

Although a thinly veiled rebuff of the House Un-American Committee hearings of the 1950's, as a film the first half of "The Crucible" is awful. Ryder seems to get nowhere, not realizing that her character is a classic villain, but plays her like an angel. Day-Lewis seems unable to pin John Proctor down, character names are bandied about with no idea who they are, and Hytner's direction consists of crane shots and unintentionally funny angles from other characters' points of view. By the time the tribunal arrives, and the story shifts to John and Elizabeth, things improve drastically.

Paul Scofield should have won his second Oscar for his portrayal of Danforth, torn between what he has been taught to believe about religion and the devil, and what his common sense is telling him. Joan Allen does a great job as the understanding Elizabeth, she has such sad scenes, other actresses would have played all the emotion out of them. Allen plays Elizabeth not emotionally aloof, but stoic. She is not seventeenth century feminist. Davison and Hale are also great in their roles.

Day-Lewis finally seems to get the hang of John, his improvement in the second half of the film is noteworthy. Ryder, who I normally do not mind, is irritating here, playing Abigail as a victim instead of a cold hearted murderess (indirectly murdering through the hangings.)

"The Crucible" is a difficult play to read, and watch on the screen. Some of the girls' theatrics are unconvincing, Hytner's direction is unsure, and the performances are weak. Waiting until things improve make for a better viewing experience in the second half, but an audience may not want to wait around that long. (* * * *) out of five stars. Watch this movie now!: The Crucible