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The Crucible
UK 1996
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Running time 123 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Although the McCarthy HUAC witchhunts that were the target of Arthur Miller’s1953 play based on the infamous Salem witch trials are long gone, The Crucible still merits attention both as historical recreation and a case study of a phenomenon - generally speaking, mass autosuggestion - that is not limited to any particular place and time.

Set in Puritan Massachusetts during 1692-93, the play is a cautionary tale about the power of belief and the wiles of self-interest as a group of girls led by Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) a young woman spurned in love by farmer John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). She fuels a small religious community’s fear of the devil with stories of Satanic possession eventually accusing Proctor’s devout wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen) who she wants to remove so that she can have John to herself, of consorting with Satan. So afeared is the community that a judge (Paul Scofield) is called in and a trial is held that quickly turns into a self-combusting spiral of accusation and counter-accusation that threatens to swallow the whole community.

Scripted by Miller himself, this adaptation (unlike the original play) opens with the girls enacting a pretend witches’ coven, dancing around a fire and bearing their breasts before being sprung by Abigail’s uncle, the Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) who is quick to assume dark forces at work. Whilst the dysfunctionality that results from religious and social repression is the psychological driver that underpins events, Miller’s primary interest is in the way that that this irrationality engenders a new and deadly logic, the events unfolding around Judge Danforth’s promise that if the residents confess they won’t hang, meaning in effect that the reward for honesty is death - a moral contradiction ultimately borne out by John Proctor.  

The Massachusetts locations and period interiors work well, despite the relatively modest production budget to take us into the historical setting while Miller’s literary and somewhat archaicized dialogue ensures that we remain aware of film as essentially a theatrical representation.  The cast all give strong performances although one would have to say that the casting of Jeffrey Jones, best-known as Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller’s hapless principal, is unfortunate. Winona Ryder is truly a little monster as the lying, manipulative Abigail. Somewhat surprisingly Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his less impressive performance although he does come into his own in the latter part of the film. Paul Scofield is excellent as the self-righteously Inquisitorial judge as is Joan Allen though her role is quite small.  One question I had was however, why, once Elizabeth untruthfully denies that her husband is an adulterer does she not recant in order to save his  life?

FYI: Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives' Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify others present at meetings he had attended.

 

 

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