on his play
Robert A. Miller
David V. Picker
Daniel Day-Lewis (John Proctor)
Winona Ryder (Abigail Williams)
Paul Scofield (Judge Danforth)
Joan Allen (Elizabeth Proctor)
Bruce Davison (Reverend Parris)
Rob Campbell (Reverend Hale)
Jeffrey Jones (Thomas Putnam)
Peter Vaughan (Giles Corey)
Karron Graves (Mary Warren)
Charlayne Woodard (Tituba)
MPAA rating: PG-13
U.S. release: November 27, 1996
Video availability: VHS - DVD
reviewed on this website:
Madness of King George
Object of My Affection
Miller's The Crucible, a high-school standard, has been
sold to us since 1953 as the American equal of Ibsen's An
Enemy of the People. Miller's play remains the only major
American dramatization of the 1692 Salem witch hysteria, and
that's a shame. In 1953, The Crucible struck many as a
comment on Senator McCarthy's communist "witch-hunts."
The new movie version reveals the play as what it always was:
a melodrama about a married guy who shouldn't have dallied with
a vengeful girl.
Miller took a huge liberty with the facts. In his story, the
girl, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), is 17; her married lover,
John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), is around 35. In fact, John
was 60 in 1692; Abigail was only 11. Obviously, there was no
affair. The problem isn't that Miller diddled with the facts;
it's that his diddling reduces the Salem tragedy to "Hell
hath no fury like a woman (or a teenager) scorned."
Director Nicholas Hytner opens with a group of girls dancing
and carrying on around a fire. One of them is Abigail, caught
red-handed (and red-lipped) after drinking blood in a love ritual.
The girls are quick to blame their Satanic behavior on the big
bad guy himself: they claim to have been bewitched by a score
of villagers, and Abigail accuses John's wife Elizabeth (Joan
Allen) of putting horrible spells on her. It's Abigail's revenge
on Elizabeth, who ended the affair.
Miller also wrote the script, and Hytner treats the old master's
text with at least as much reverence as the pious Reverend Parris
(Bruce Davison) shows for the word of God. Hytner knocks himself
out trying to make the play cinematic, but Miller hasn't made
the play into a screenplay. At one point, Abigail simply
vanishes, and her departure is explained by a line of dialogue.
In a movie, we expect to see, not to be told.
Hytner's previous film, The
Madness of King George, was the polar opposite of The
Crucible: it was an exuberant, intelligent entertainment
full of terrific performances. This time, Hytner is asleep at
the wheel. The actors, with four exceptions, spend their time
shrieking and spitting at the camera. Ryder comes off the worst:
she looks the part, but whenever she opens her mouth, it's over.
To be fair, she also gets the most unsayable lines: "I look
for John Proctor who put knowledge in my heart," etc.
Joan Allen (Nixon)
gives yet another quietly great performance as the repressed
Elizabeth; she makes you wish that Miller had given her more
to do. Rob Campbell (Unforgiven) is low-key and smart
as the visiting Reverend Hale, who slowly realizes how insane
Salem is becoming, and Karron Graves, a newcomer to movies, brings
some poignancy to the pivotal role of the Proctors' frightened
servant Mary Warren. But the main reason to see The Crucible
is Paul Scofield as the grim inquisitor Judge Danforth. His line
readings are lasers slicing through Miller's murky drama. In
the film's best moment, Scofield's judge slam-dunks Parris with
the precisely inflected "Mr. Parris, you are a ... brainless
man." Without him, The Crucible would be as humorless
as a Puritan.