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Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder,
The Crucible is adapted by Arthur Miller from his play. As always, Cranky makes no comparison to the source material, but let's face it: We all studied the original in high school, and it's a bit hard to keep that ingrained teaching out.
It's not necessary. The Crucible is one of the greatest dramatic plays of the 20th century, and this adaptation at the hands of its author is a powerful, engrossing piece of cinema. For once, Cranky will strongly disagree with one of the Crankified, who went on and on about how lousy a filmmaker director Nicholas Hytner is and how Paul Scofield makes anything look good. Hytner's last film, The Madness of King George, was one of the great overlooked films of 1994/95, despite an Oscar nomination for Nigel Hawthorne.
Two time Oscar winner Scofield does indeed deliver a superlative performance as Judge Danforth, the Supreme Justice who presides over the Salem witch trials of 1692. His performance is complemented by those of one time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis and one time Oscar nominee Winona Ryder as John Proctor and Abigail Williams, whose tryst sets the whole megilla in motion. If you haven't made it to high school yet . . .
The tryst, once discovered by Proctor's wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen), gets Abigail kicked out of the household. Abigail then gets family slave Tituba to cast a love spell for her and several of the other girls of Salem. The girls dance with abandon (this being quite unchristian in those days), and are discovered by Abigail's uncle, Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison). Two of the girls fall into a stupor -- the first fakery. Abigail tells her uncle the truth, but concerned with political enemies who want him out of Salem, Reverend Parris supports the fevered cry of one of the older women in the town that "spirits" have assaulted her daughter and the other children.
To cover their tracks, the girls throw accusations of witchcraft to the four corners of the town. They fake possession, and claim to see devils and spirits. Led by Abigail, they realize that they have tremendous power over the older residents. So, for that matter, do some of their parents, who use the accusations for personal profit.
Miller's play was originally written to stand metaphorically for the Communist witch hunts and blacklisting of the 1950s. What makes it a grand theatrical work is that the original metaphor works for most any "holier than thou" procedure. It can be parents accusing rock and roll of corrupting their children. It can be TV fundamentalist Christians accusing whatever it is they are accusing this week to raise money. Three hundred years ago, a dance known as "the waltz" was accused of being lascivious and corrupting. In The Crucible, dance is a metaphor for possession. Salem was a messed up place. Even when the judges know they have been taken, the trials must go on because the people are whipped into a frenzy at the motion of a finger pointed at the sky and a child's scream. It is quite a sight to see.
Ryder is a perfect Abigail, in whom lust and vengeance form a potent weapon. Though shunned by the more intelligent members of the community, her Abigail appeals to the desperate and fearful. The explosive "possessions" (though her motivations are clear to all in the audience) work. You can see her transition from a simple girl who only wants a married man to a powerful controlling entity, and it is something to see.
Day-Lewis' John Proctor, whose wife is the ultimate target, is the man who will do nothing until it is too late. Every thought process is clear. Every action taken makes sense. As the head of the judicial trinity, Paul Scofield is, to put it in one word, magnificent. His Judge Danforth, with weathered face and deep voice, resonates authority and control, even when he knows he is wrong.
As with every film that earns more than a notation on my nominations list, The Crucible will carry the standard "Oscar race" rating of...
Miller's play works because it does not preach. You can enjoy it just as a spectacle of a town gone wild. You can read into it as much or as little as you would like to -- that is one of the reasons it is studied in school. I cannot tell you what Miller added or subtracted to his stage play for the screen version (since I don't compare), but you cannot be disappointed if you plop yourself down in a theater seat for The Crucible.
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