A 17th-century Salem woman accuses an ex-lover's wife of witchery in an adaptation of the Arthur Miller play.
The Salem witch trials have to a large degree, entered the Heritage Tourism arena, put down by many laypeople as a quirk of the past, thought of as a bizarre historical aberration that resulted in the hanging of 19 innocent people in a little Massachusetts town in 1692. What Arthur Miller did in the early 1950s with his play was to relentlessly pick away at the story in an attempt to get to its heart.
The facts, are simple, if astonishing. In the puritanical, superstitious world of 17th century America, several young girls, started behaving strangely, with some falling into unconsciousness. Baffled, the physicians concluded that Satan was to blame and the hunt for the witches who had possessed the girls began. Soon, the West Indian slave of the village pastor was forced into a confession, and suddenly petty jealousies erupted, vendettas were settled, and anyone whose behaviour didn't conform to the social and religious norm was accused.
Their defence? They had none. The only way to avoid the noose was to confess to being a witch and face utter estrangement, which many heroically refused to do. After nine months of terror, the trials were called to a halt and a kind of sanity returned.
Miller, who admits that the McCarthy witchhunts were the inspiration for his play, took the tough route in an age of black-and-white heroes and villains, and refused to simplify his characters. John Proctor (Day-Lewis), for instance, is the voice of reason in the village, but here is a central character who adulterates, beats women, and refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Likewise, Scofield's Judge Danforth, an individual more interested in the majesty of the law than in seeing justice done, is often seen as a misguided man of God, attempting to do what he feels is best.
After his success with The Madness Of King George, Hytner directs the stellar cast with great skill, and they do him proud, particularly Day-Lewis as the passionate but confused Proctor, Ryder as the scheming accuser Abigail and Joan Allen as the injured and upright Elizabeth Proctor. The absolute standout, though, is Scofield, whose performance is, yes really, worth the admission price alone, a mesmerising, dark presence throughout the film.
If there is a criticism it is that by opening the play out into a movie, all the original sense of buttoned-down claustrophobia is lost. What happened in Salem was a combination of selfishness, hysteria and pig ignorance, but at its core were a group of young women sent almost literally insane by the repressed piety of the Puritan community which denied them any pleasures, including simply dancing. In the play, this comes over loud and clear.
In this almost perfect screen adaptation, the lingering question is the most important one: what caused such madness?