Nicholas Hytner’s 1996 film of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible boasts among other attributes a screenplay by the author himself. Miller’s drama, which premiered on Broadway in 1953 at the height of the zealotry of Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, was the great American playwright’s cautionary response to the shame and hysteria evoked by those hearings.
Even as polemic The Crucible contains some of Miller’s most masterful writing on his perennial themes of social injustice and the human conscience. Hytner—former artistic director of the National Theatre and director of films including The Madness of King George and The History Boys—generally puts his trust in the spare, well-honed authority of the words, and in a superb cast of actors who bring them to life with appropriate weight and measure. Shot primarily on a small island off the coast of Maine, Miller’s discourse on ignorance and fear stoked by demagoguery strikes most forcefully not in its occasionally overheated moments but in those of stark simplicity, when the human vulnerabilities of the tortured Puritan heart are exposed, like breath, against the cold, hard-etched, unforgiving landscape.
In 1692 on the strength of hysterical accusations by some of Salem’s adolescent girls, led by Abigail Williams (an effective Winona Ryder), dozens of innocent townspeople are charged with consorting with Satan and brought before a Puritan tribunal (headed by the great Paul Scofield, who won a BAFTA—officiously pharasiacal, bloodless) dedicated to destroying the practice of witchcraft not so much as a matter of principle but as a diversionary means of strengthening their hold on the colonial government. Many innocents are convicted and some are hanged. Once accused, one’s only recourse to the chain-reaction scapegoating of the witch-hunt is to publicly confess and, preferably, name a few more names, and it is on this point of irony that Miller’s correlative link to the nightmare of the McCarthy hearings attains its sharpest resonance.
The purge inexorably closes in on John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his wife (Joan Allen). In a move apparently intended to lend more contemporary juice to the screenplay Miller’s and Hytner’s dramatic focus here tends, beyond previous screen adaptations, to focus on Abigail’s thwarted desire for Proctor as the driving force behind the witch-hunt. Although there’s certainly nothing wrong with noting the subtext of this motivation, by shifting what went on in Salem a bit too emphatically to frustrated sexuality and personal vindictiveness, the film misses a few of the more complex implications the author originally unearthed in this exploration of social institutions and collective conscience.
Nonetheless, the work and Hytner’s faithful handling of it dramatically highlight the perils of disregarding separation of church and state and of demagoguery uncontested and unchecked. Scofield’s smarmily rigid magistrate says, “Gone is the time when, like a dusky evening, evil might commingle with good. The good are now separated from the evil.” That process of demonization is no far cry from Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt 60 years ago and it’s no far cry from those today, in a list of nations too numerous to name, who perversely manipulate religious beliefs for political power, hatred, oppression, and destruction.
The always astonishing Day-Lewis as Proctor, the moral crux of the piece—an Everyman who must make the ultimate choice in defining personal honor—gives a modulated, incisively intelligent, wrenching performance, and Allen as his loving and judicious wife Elizabeth is a memorable match. Their closing scene is not only the culmination of the work’s central socio-political question and moral dilemma, it has such powerfully specific humanity that it becomes the measure by which many viewers will find the film unforgettable.
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Netflix, Amazon, Google Play, VuDu, and other select streaming sites)