The Crucible (1996)

D: Nicholas Hynter
S: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder

Well mounted adaptation of Arthur Miller's polemical allegory of political intolerance set nominally during the Salem Witch trials but originally written as a critique of McCarthyism in the 1950s. With the benefit of good casting, a screenplay written by Miller himself and the steady, theatrical-minded directorial hand of Nicholas Hynter (The Madness of King George), the film is as impressive a rendering of a classic work of twentieth century American political theatre as you might want. How good a film it is is another question. Despite Hynter's attempt to broaden the setting with the benefit of splendid set and costume design and nice photography by Andrew Dunn, the real power of the piece is still in its literary and theatrical qualities, namely its structure and pointed dialogue, performed admirably by a top cast.

The basic story concerns the events which transpire when witchcraft is suspected in a small New England town in the 17th century. Though the accusations can be traced to a jealous and vengeful Winona Ryder, a young girl obsessed with farmer Daniel-Day Lewis, in the atmosphere of paranoia and superstition which surrounds the local girls' dabbling in wishful voodoo with the help of a West Indian slave girl, locals and religious authorities are all too easily convinced of people's involvement in full-scale witchcraft by rumour and innuendo, and guilt by association. A cleverly judged dramatic sub-plot explores the strained relationship between Day-Lewis and wife Joan Allen, complicated by the now terminated affair with Ryder which has left the former wracked with a different kind of guilt, and the latter wrapped in mistrust and uncertainty. The two plots reach a simultaneous climax, allowing Miller to hold interest on both the social and personal levels. With its classic structure, solid exposition and characterisation, and a wealth of provocative scenes and interesting sub-plots, there's always plenty to appreciate on the most basic textual level.

Yet the story still works most effectively as an allegorical snapshot of the mindset of 1950s America. The Salem witch trials were an ideal vessel for Miller to choose to criticise the fear and suspicion generated by the anti-communist hearings held some three hundred years later. Written in 1953, the play was a superb illustration of the political capacities of even the popular forms of theatre. There was nothing avant-garde or excessively 'arty' about this play, and audiences would have been able to enjoy a charged dramatic piece while also finding themselves in the midst of a cautionary lecture on the political climate of the day. In its own way this was quite daring, and it was certainly effective and controversial in its time.

However, it has taken more than forty three years for the American cinema to catch up with the play itself (and then, finally, with the aid of a British director). In the meantime there has been a French version (made in 1957 from a script by Jean-Paul Sartre), and there have been other allegories (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), documentaries (Point of Order), and even direct fictional representations of the events and the atmosphere (The Front, Guilty by Suspicion) which have not only explored and critiqued the history of McCarthyism, but found different aspects and elements to expand on and extrapolate additional thematic content from. Thus, inevitably, the polemical force of Miller's original play is now spent. Lacking a sense of how the allegory may be located within contemporary American society (though there are possibilities: race, policing, etc., none offer themselves), the film becomes something of a museum piece which honours a moment of political anger which is now too easily dismissed as 'mere' history. It is now taught at University, making it even more removed from the everyday and threatening to enshrine it as a rarefied, academic, think piece rather than an active and vital work of art. The Crucible is still a provocative and thought-provoking text, but it now requires an extra-textual awareness on the part of the viewer no longer of current events, but of history, for its full force. Arguably, its moment has passed.

Viewers will nonetheless be able to enjoy the film for its superficial qualities. It is generally well crafted, and despite some fanciful and rather hopeful attempts to add cinematic resonance with camera movement, it is clearly a theatrical adaptation which uses words and stage blocking to illustrate its points more than images and their arrangement. The cast is universally superb, but especially Ryder as the ringleader of the accusers (perfectly cast and full of both pitiable and hateful emotion) and veteran Paul Scofield (Quiz Show) as a senior magistrate with depths of potentially contradictory reactions to what he sees and hears which are a wonder to disentangle. Day-Lewis is a brooding presence most of the time, but manages to carry the crucial final scenes with enough authentic emotion. Allen is restrained in contrast, but equally effective in context. Support from a variety of others is equally good, especially in bringing out the nuances of the sub-plots involving paranoid minister Bruce Davison and land-grabber Jeffrey Jones. Even Police Academy mainstay George Gaynes makes a dignified contribution as a more doubtful but powerless member of the court.

The film is worth seeing, and it would be nice to think that it can be as vital and stimulating a work of political art as it once was. I have my doubts however, and it seems all too obvious that it will be the play which is remembered above this or any other adaptation, which is, I suppose, just as it should be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.