Miller's The Crucible is a great play adapted into a great film
I remember reading many classics in high school that were usually extremely boring. Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," on the other hand, maintained my interest throughout. I couldn't explain why it appealed to me, but somehoe it drew me into the intriguing story. The Salem Witch Trials seem like a perfect subject for a film, yet it has taken almost 40 years for an English-language version of the play to reach the silver screen. One almost wonders why Hollywood waited so long to produce an adaption of this story. The Crucible's themes are very much present in today's society, and this allows Miller's story to be placed into any time period and still be powerful.
Thankfully, Miller adapted this version himself and kept the play's original setting. The events of the film take place in the Salem in the 17th century. But as I think about it, shifting the story's setting could diminish the overall quality and emotional involvement this film brings. Not only is this a great adaption by Miller, but it is one of the most powerful films from 1996. It has been quite a while since I have experience such serious suspense in a movie as this provides. The thought-provoking play has produced a nearly flawless film, which is able to combine romance, suspense, comedy, and much more into one outstanding work of film. The main theme of the movie is arguable, but for me, The Crucible is about love of power and deceit in a paranoid society.
The Crucible begins with a shocking portrayal of the event which set all the trials into motion. A group of Salem's female children gather in the woods. They sit around a boiling kettle, and led by Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), a servant from Barbados, they chant and dance, wishing for men that they love to fall in love with them. Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) stumbles upon the dancing girls, and as a result, two of the girls fall into coma-like states. Witchcraft is suspected as the cause. As all the girls know, if you deny witchcraft, you are hanged. This fact strikes fear in the hearts of all the girls, and to save themselves, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) blames everything on Tituba. Abigail begins to emerge as the leader of this group, and when she witnesses Tituba admitting that she was under the control of Satan, she realizes that she has the power to condemn anyone she wants.
Of course, this power is an undeniably strong and almost erotic sensation. As Abigail now encompasses this power, she knows exactly what she wants to do. She cries out and admits that she is under the control of Satan. Then, to top Tituba's outburst, she starts naming names of people in Salem who follow the devil. The rest of the girls know exactly what she is doing, and they begin naming names as well. Abigail's motive is deeper and more emotionally misguided then the rest. She is in love with John Proctor (Daniel-Day Lewis) who once had an affair with her, but because of his guilty conscience, she is unable to win back his love. Proctor's wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), is one of the names mentioned by Abigail. Abigail isn't necessarily mean, but her misguided love causes her to point out Elizabeth.
As this love story evolves throughout the film, another parallel plot emerges. Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield) is brought in to lead the trials. The paranoid village is more than welcome to believe anything the group of children say. As put by Judge Danforth himself, "We can not expect those afflicted to admit their guilt, so we have to rely on the victims." One after the other refuses to admit to witchcraft, and as the children continue to condemn people, Mary Warren (Karron Graves), the servant of the Proctors and one of the children mentioning people, begins to see the error of her ways. She struggles with her consience, and finally admits that the group is lying. This new plot twist provides the most suspenseful scene of the film, involving the testimony of Elizabeth Proctor of Abigail Williams. The serious suspense provides a heart-pounding climax (I read the play and the scene still made my pulse pound). It has been a long time since suspense such as that was presented on screen.
For a film desparately relying on the power of its actors, the director had to pick the perfect cast, and he has nearly done just that. Winona Ryder was an obvious choice for the part of Abigail. She brings the character to life, and thanks to her facial expressions, we are able to understand her character's motives more than in the play. The rest of the cast was probably more difficult to choose. Daniel-Day Lewis gives one of the best performances of the film as John Proctor. His flawed hero is reminiscient of Oskar Schindler, and his struggles with Abigail and his wife are terrifically portrayed. Joan Allen steals the film from it's two main actors. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Allen shows near perfection as the strong and stoic wife. Her character is one of the smartest in the film. Paul Scofield gives a top-notch performance and he is the second most interesting character in the film. Karron Graves is excellent as Mary Warren who must deal with ridicule from her friends and her conscience. And Charlayne Woodard gives a very good portrayal of Tituba. A wonderful turn by the entire cast.
The Crucible is rated PG-13 for the intense depiction of the Salem Witch Trials. Director Nicholas Hytner has magnificently recreated The Crucible for the screen. Not only is the storytelling top-notch, but the visual style is perfect. Two impressive scenes involve Abigail pretending to see a yellow bird on a rafter, and the slow-moving shot approaching Joan Allen's face as she answers the decision-making question from the judge. The atmosphere is maintained throughout the film, and therefore creates some original suspense. This is one of the best films from 1996 and thankfully one film version of The Crucible will go down in history.
**** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie