by Cathleen Myers
One of the perverse joys of watching the Robert Miller’s new film version of his father Arthur’s now classic stage play The Crucible is listening to the youthful cinema audience’s increasingly horrified reactions to the perversion of justice at the Salem witch trials. The Crucible has always been an audience-gripping play. The scene in which Abigail Williams manages to convince most of the people in the court room that Mary Warren’s "familiar" - a malevolent yellow bird - is poised on the rafters ready to strike at any moment has been known to drive playgoers into screaming hysteria! Modern audiences, though not so easily frightened of invisible monsters, seem to find the trial scenes almost unbearable. We’ve seen too many miscarriages of justice ourselves lately.
Arthur Miller has done a major re-write of his play, adapting it as vividly the screen as if he had been writing for that medium all his life, bringing static scenes vibrantly to life and taking full advantage of the opportunities of the camera. He and director Nicholas Hytner substitute action for exposition in a number of effective ways: Instead of the verbal flashback to the midnight conjuring/dancing scene in the woods, for instance, Hytner shows it to us, in living color.
Perhaps the scariest thing about The Crucible is that most of the story - apart from the fictional affair of John Proctor and Abigail Williams - is absolutely true. While liberals have always found the play a stirring statement about individuality vs. conformity and a courageous attack on McCarthyism, historians know that the allegory is not manufactured. Miller studied the extant Salem trial transcripts in detail, even making a laudable, if not always convincing attempt to re-create 17th century language. Miller could sincerely say, at his own examination by the House of Un-American Activities, that his description of the Salem witch trial procedure was historically accurate: the pressuring of witnesses to save themselves by confessing and to turn state’s evidence by naming their alleged confederates; the arrest of witnesses for contempt of court for refusing to testify against their friends; the willingness of the prosecution to accept guilt by association and nonconformity as evidence of disloyalty - all resulted in the conviction of some of Salem’s most loyal and upright men and women of witchcraft. Many were executed and it was their courage on the scaffold that helped convinced the citizens of Salem to stop the reign of terror.
Miller’s film is a rare example of how star-casting occasionally works: Daniel Day-Lewis is perfectly cast as the ruggedly handsome, defiant, rebellious John Proctor, an Everyman Braveheart who tries, vainly, to bring Salem to its senses. Joan Allen brings a moving intensity to the role of his repressed and virtuous wife Elizabeth, whose trials teach her the one Christian virtue she lacks. Surprisingly, Winona Ryder makes an alluring and convincing Abigail Williams, the seductive teenager whose passion for John Proctor precipitates the tragedy. Paul Scofield (best known, ironically, the martyred Sir Thomas More) as Judge Danforth is coldly rational in his manipulation of the law to prove the irrational.
As Miller himself has pointed out, it is certainly easy to understand in retrospect why the judges, clerics, and doctors of Salem mistook victims of hysteria for victims of witchcraft. When a conscience-stricken Mary Warren tries to confess that her testimony was false and her hysteria and illnesses "mere pretence," Judge Danforth - with seemingly impeccable logic - asks her to prove it by fainting on the spot. And, of course, she cannot.
Historical re-creationists will find much to admire in the film: The bustling street scenes, Proctor’s scene at the plow, the rugged but neat cottages, the still wild forest scenery all vividly conjure up late 17th century New England. Most of the sober but simply becoming 17th century middle class costumes worn by Miller’s Puritans are convincing, and Ms. Ryder’s sensuous beauty is actually accentuated by her plain but neatly cut brown gown. (Though one wonders why Abigail and Mercy aren’t corseted. Like all respectable women of their century, Puritan women and girls most certainly did wear stays - not for allure but for support).
But these are quibbles. This is one of the most striking historical films of the year.
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