Written by: Arthur Miller, based on his play
Directed by: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Bruce Davison
- Running audio commentary with scribe Miller and director Hytner
- Convo between Day-Lewis and Miller
- Making-of featurette
Released by: Fox
My Advice: Own it.
It’s the 17th Century in the New World. John Proctor (Day-Lewis) is an essentially good man in Salem, Massachusetts, who prizes his honor above all else. He did, however, make one small mistake: he had an affair with a young local girl (Ryder) while his wife (Allen) was ill. Now, he can’t seem to get rid of the girl. When he refuses to continue frolicking with her, the girl uses an opportune moment to bring up charges of witchcraft. Thus sets in motion the hysteria that would lead a bunch of zealots to hang a bunch of innocent people.
[ad#longpost]This film has been considered a powerful statement and a canvas on which you can paint your own interpretation. Miller’s original intent was to shine a light on McCarthyism by going back and pointing a finger at history, saying essentially, “Hey, dumbasses, have you learned nothing?” Paint whatever picture you want–whether it’s literal hysteria about satanism or just a condemnation of religious (as opposed to spiritual) fervor in general. What matters is that Hytner and Miller teamed to create a film so powerful that it will stand up to whatever interp you want to place on it. I remember hearing at the time that this came out how Hytner was a little trepidacious about asking Arthur Miller to make changes to his work, but how in turn Miller would nod and agree and then change it. The fact that they were able to work together so well is apparent in the final product.
Miller’s work is just as powerful in this form as on stage, thanks to the amazing cast. Joan Allen is as strong as ever, and Winona Ryder has given us two really good dramatic roles–both alongside Daniel Day-Lewis. I have a theory that Day-Lewis is such a strong actor that he actually has talent leftover to bestow upon others, much like The Flash and his speed force. How can you not give the best performance of your life working alongside Day-Lewis? Because if you didn’t, he would squash you like a bug on screen. Day-Lewis’ ability to become his role is just as much in evidence here as in other films, like Last of the Mohicans or My Left Foot. Just brilliant.
I was a bit peeved when I looked at the back of the box on this thing. It lists the conversation between Day-Lewis and Miller, which is short and doesn’t really give a whole lot of information, or really give either man a chance to bring much forward. Then there’s the making-of featurette–and while it mercifully doesn’t have the blowing-smoke-up-skirts quality of many of these things, it also reuses a lot of the same answers from the previous convo, so a good half of it you’ve already seen–and a good quarter of it is footage from the film, which, again–you’ve already seen.
Looking at the back of the box, I thought: “Man, what a missed opportunity. You could have gotten Arthur Miller, the playwright and screenscribe, who brought this thing to the screen forty years after writing the original play, and Nicholas Hytner, the director, to give a killer commentary.” Then I put in the disc, flipped to the special features and–I’ll be damned, it’s a commentary with Miller and Hytner! Why in the hell you wouldn’t tout that on the back of the box so that people could get excited about it, I have no idea, but–there it is.
The commentary is actually quite good, if you can get away from the sad fact that Hytner doesn’t know the definition of purgery. Beyond that, you have Miller talking about what led him to write the play, the research that went into it, the differences between the play and reality, and what an impact the play has had on the world. The story he tells towards the end of a former Chinese political prisoner having seen the play performed and being amazed that someone who wasn’t Chinese could have written it speaks to just how well Miller tapped into something fundamental in the human condition. Hytner talks about what it was like to make this as his second film, how they changed the play (mostly in the first act), and what went into recreating Salem. Basically you get everything you would want to hear from these two, so it’s a must-listen.
The film is just powerful and timeless. The performances are downright electric and the entire thing is so amazing it’s almost painful to watch. I found it hard to rewatch it for this review, to be perfectly honest. But the good news is that Fox has given it a worthwhile treatment. Maybe one day Criterion will pick up the baton and run with it, but for right now, we are pleased.