Monday, November 25, 2013

The Crucible (1996)

Director: Nicholas Hytner                                Writer: Arthur Miller
Film Score: George Fenton                             Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen and Paul Scofield

Arthur Miller was a genius. His plays are not just great, they are works of art. Drawing on the social currents at work in his day they are timeless looks into American life that have become transcendent over the years and will always have something relevant to say to future generations of Americans. Given that, one would think that he couldn’t do any better, but a few years before his death he topped himself with The Crucible. When someone is adapting a play for the screen there are only two ways of being successful. The first is to make the action so compelling that the viewer doesn’t realize it’s all taking place in one room. This is what Hitchcock did with Dial M for Murder. The other is to break the play out of the stage and make it more real, a difficult thing to do, especially for the playwright himself. But Miller did it spectacularly and the results only served to make his work even more iconic.

The Crucible is the story of the Salem Witch Trials, which Miller was compelled to write as the events of the late sixteen hundreds so eerily mirrored the witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee in its misguided attempt to rid Hollywood of communism. The story begins with a group of girls led by Winona Ryder going out into the woods, dancing and attempting to cast spells over the men they have crushes on. When they are caught by the minister, Bruce Davidson, his daughter attempts to avoid getting him into trouble by pretending to be bewitched and Davidson calls in Rob Campbell to assure the community that this isn’t the case. The problem is that Ryder, under pressure to reveal what they were doing in the woods, blames the black slave, Charlayne Woodard, and when Campbell offers her a way out of the hangman’s noose by naming others as witches, Ryder picks up on the idea and begins naming names as well and is soon joined by the rest of the girls.

At the center of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis, who had an affair with Ryder and knows that the girls are faking. But reluctant to ruin himself and his family by risking exposure, he does nothing until it’s too late. There are some great performances in the film, which is also responsible for elevating it to another level. Day-Lewis’s agony at knowing the truth and withholding it is riveting. Joan Allen is fantastic as his wife, proudly Puritan at the beginning and fully embracing her imperfections by the end, and nominated for an Oscar for her effort. The venerable Paul Scofield, in one of his final roles, is incredibly impressive as the head judge at the trial, and Jeffrey Jones is solid as the vindictive rich man in the village. I really dislike Ryder as an actress and so, for me, she is perfect for the almost sociopathic girl who started it all.

Part of the genius of the film is in its pacing. Things unfold quickly and it puts the viewer in a position of not really being able to understand everything that is going on as it happens. In a way, this gives the viewer some sense of the reality of the situation, wanting desperately to stop and figure out why these things are happening but unable to as they are being swept away in the tide of events. The climax comes as the trial ends and one character has the chance to end it all by simply telling the truth. It is one of the great moments in literature. Miller was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay and in retrospect was robbed, as was the film in general. Director Nicholas Hytner is, appropriately, also an award-winning Broadway director. All of which makes The Crucible one of those rare occurrences when a brilliant piece of literature is translated to an equally brilliant film. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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