The Crucible

1996, PG-13, 123 min. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Woodard, Frances Conroy, Karron Graves, Charlayne Woodard, Elizabeth Lawrence.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 20, 1996

Here's a conundrum: how to film a drama about mass hysteria without the end product becoming shrill and hysterical? It's a problem that's not fully solved in this new screen adaptation of The Crucible, that oft-performed staple of the international stage penned by Arthur Miller in 1953. The drama, set in the Puritan era of the Salem witchcraft trials, demonstrates how the telling of lies can swiftly develop into a vile social contagion whose attendant mass hysteria can snuff out all vestiges of truth and justice. Miller's play has always suffered from the obviousness of its allegory. Subtlety has no place in the hysterical rush of a witch hunt. Miller has now authored this screenplay adaptation 40 years after its initial stage debut as an intentional Red Scare cautionary tale. Language-wise, little seems changed in this updating and the play's glorious speeches about truth, freedom, and the personal responsibility survive the transition. What's different here seems more a matter of emphasis. Now, the story's slant seems less overtly political and rather more focused on sexual power and repression, although this new subtext seems to have slipped in less by design than by subconscious demand. In this film, the story becomes that of young Abigail Williams (Ryder) who discovers her own power when a lie she tells in the hope of bringing her married lover back to her bed is seized by a whole community which then continues to respond dramatically to her every uttering, no matter its truth, falsity, or oddity. The movie starts out promisingly with the image of a young Puritan girl bolting upright in bed and dashing off to the woods to join her girlfriends in a midnight dance. This is no coven of witches, just a gathering of boy-crazy girls willing to participate in mysterious rituals that promise to make them noticed by their beloveds. Curiously, this opening scene which shows the girls dancing in the moonlight and giddily voicing their desires, is one of the few changes in the stage-to-screen translation. So too, John Proctor (Day-Lewis), the object of Abigail's affections, projects a ruggedly masculine presence not common to any of the other colonists in Salem. In this context, The Crucible very much becomes a story about a love affair gone bad and a young, solitary girl who uses the situation to advance her position in society and wreak her vengeance. Surrounded by some phenomenal acting performances (notably Day-Lewis, Joan Allen as the wronged wife, and the always welcome Paul Scofield in the unenviable position of judge and jury), the weaknesses in Ryder's technique become more blatant. She begins at a feverish pitch and never lets up from there. It can be seen, I suppose, as either the stunning depiction of a spiteful child or as the consequences of a limited acting range. Nicholas Hytner, who did such a wonderful job with his screen adaptation of The Madness of King George, manages to get a lot of mileage out of opening up The Crucible's “four walls” to the great outdoors. Ultimately, this movie's greatest gift may be the one that Arthur Miller makes to his real-life children. His son, Robert A. Miller, marks his debut as a feature-film producer with this work; Rebecca Miller, the author's daughter, wed Salem's hunky star, Daniel Day-Lewis.

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The Crucible, Nicholas Hytner, Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Jeffrey Woodard, Frances Conroy, Karron Graves, Charlayne Woodard, Elizabeth Lawrence

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