October 01, 2015

The Crucible

At times, the 1996 film version of The Crucible feels merely a notch above a History Channel re-enactment of a day in the life of the Puritans. But then, especially as the film develops, and the complexities of the characters from Arthur Miller's play swirl together in an increasingly murky dish of passion, wrath, desire, and vindictiveness, you find yourself pulled into the spectacle of it and taken hostage by the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams and Joan Allen as Elizabeth Proctor.

We so rarely get operatic drama anymore, that there's something deeply comforting about the way The Crucible shatters us emotionally. Daniel Day-Lewis masterfully shows us a man tormented by his own guilt but equally convinced that the authorities in his community are utterly insane fools, at best, and abusive dictators at worst. The tension builds and builds until the thing lies bleeding before us, and it's a deeply affecting experience. We've achieved what the Greeks all along told us was the purpose of tragedy: catharsis. 

And of course, Crucible is a really fun ensemble piece. Everyone gets to play dress-up, do their best cocktail of Anglo-Colonial accents, and shout beautiful, intense prose from the rooftops. It's delicious, it's powerful, it's touching, especially when Joan Allen weeps into her husband's shoulder, "Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me," as the music swells, or when Abigail leads the other girls in their hysterical accusations of witchcraft, and the camera actually moves and twists, as though Sam Raimi's demon-camera in Evil Dead has temporarily invaded this play. The more the film lets loose, the more wonderful it all is.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner. The screenplay was adapted by Arthur Miller, who doesn't shy away from the bleak ending, thus letting his criticism of the ignorant and stupid mob mentality of both the witch trials and the Red Scare remain as stinging and powerful as ever. With Rob Campbell, who does good work as the beleaguered witch-hunter Reverend Hale, Paul Scofield as the imperious Judge Danforth, Bruce Davison as the cowardly Reverend Parris, Jeffrey Jones as Thomas Putnam, and Charlayne Woodard as Tituba, the Barbados slave.

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