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1 item from 1996

Film review: 'The Crucible'

4 November 1996 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Mass hysteria in all its fury is powerfully unleashed and captured in this teeming and tempestuous screen adaptation of Arthur Miller's classic play, "The Crucible". Buttressed by a formidable ensemble cast, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Paul Scofield, this splendidly wrought drama is as topical and urgent today as when it was written in 1953 as a parable against Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunts of the era. In this day when rigid truth holders still scapegoat the "heathen," as practiced by sanctimonious fundamentalists of the religious right and closeminded academics of the politically correct left, Miller's prescient warning about the excesses of collective power and moral arrogance is, as ever, chilling and timely.

20th Century Fox should be able to count on strong reviews and likely awards to lure serious cinemagoers, but it's marketing challenge will be to entice viewers who may have been soured by the high school experience of "The Crucible", as taught by dowdy drudges and performed by brown-nosing students hoping to pad their college applications.

In this roiling adaptation, Arthur Miller has prismed his theme of the dangers of institutional tyranny through the underlying personal passions of the town's characters. In puritanical Salem, Mass., of 1692, religion was the community's most powerful and pervasive institution, and it was steeped in thorny truths that kept the good citizens in a moral straitjacket. In that historical instance, the church community's severe strictures against sexuality and pleasure cut deeply against human nature.

Sex is the taboo that bursts out here, as the adolescent girls of the village unleash their bottled-up sexual pangs in a secret dance in the woods. The most aroused participant is Abigail Williams (Ryder), who, we soon learn, has had the further audacity to have begun an affair with one of the area's most respected menfolk, John Proctor (Day-Lewis). While the girls' carousing may seem innocent enough from our late-20th century perspective, their actions were considered tantamount to a satanic saturnalia at the time, particularly by a narrow-minded minister who witnessed the "debauchery" and, in the mind-set of the day, could only explain it as having been done by the devil.

In Miller's cuttingly crisp filmic distillation, the public outcry against the young girls is particularly frightening.

In his wise scenario, we see how fear of the unknown causes otherwise good people to protect their world and personal stakes by finding a scapegoat; in this 17th-century case, the bugaboo was witches.

Nicholas Hytner's direction conveys the swirling forces at play here -- personal urges, societal strictures -- and crystallizes them with an equally succinct and expressive visualization. The performances are uniformly powerful, particularly Day-Lewis as the good farmer who must confront his own weaknesses as well as grapple with his considerable conscience.

Scofield's resonant baritone and sense of morality recall his towering performance as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's brilliant "A Man for All Seasons". In this case, Scofield plays the most difficult of parts, a sincere and compassionate man whose goodness ultimately serves evil -- if ever the devil needed sympathy, Scofield evokes our compassion. As the lusty and manipulative Abigail, Ryder throbs with raging desires and self-serving betrayals.

Other performances are similarly well-sculpted, including Joan Allen's subtle portrayal of a god-fearing farm wife whose marriage has been betrayed; Peter Vaughan's forceful performance as a contentious landowner; and Bruce Davison as a politically manipulative man of god.

Unlike too many stage presentations of "The Crucible" that dwell on the gothiclike horrors of the community, Hytner's visualization is more complex.We see not a barren, rocky enclave of animosity but the crystal blue of the ocean's waters and the beauty in nature and in people that this type of hysteria quashes and negates.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn deserves praise for not only his chiaroscuro lighting. Characters' faces are a sharp mix of bright light and darkness, aptly signifying the contradictory moral forces at work here. Similarly, composer George Fenton's rich and astringent score clues us to the hard inward rages that are billowing in this cautionary truism.


20th Century Fox

A David V. Picker production

A Nicholas Hytner film

Producers Robert A. Miller, David V. Picker

Director Nicholas Hytner

Screenwriter Arthur Miller

Based on Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible"

Director of photography Andrew Dunn

Production designer Lilly Kilvert

Editor Tariq Anwar

Music George Fenton

Costume designer Bob Crowley

Co-producer Diana Pokorny

Casting Donna Isaacson, Daniel Swee

Sound mixer Michael Barosky



John Proctor Daniel Day-Lewis

Abigail Williams Winona Ryder

Judge Danforth Paul Scofield

Elizabeth Proctor Joan Allen

Rev. Parris Bruce Davison

Rev. Hale Rob Campbell

Thomas Putnam Jeffrey Jones

Giles Corey Peter Vaughan

Mary Warren Karron Graves

Tituba Charlayne Woodard

Running time -- 115 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13


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