The Witch, aka The VVitch (SPOILERS)
Cert: 15 / 93 mins / Dir. Robert Eggers / Trailer
Now, as a rule I don't read reviews of a movie before I've watched it. Verbal recommendations (or otherwise) are fine, but I don't think it's really fair for me to be predisposed to a movie based on someone else's detailed interpretation of it. I tend to limit my exposure to trailers and whatever promo-hubbub happens to be going on at the time. So sitting in the more upmarket end of London on Saturday for The Witch, I could already imagine the umbrage of audiences expecting a mainstream horror movie, instead having to deal with actual dialogue and slow-paced plot-building, rather than a haunting-by-numbers shriek-fest. Let's not mess around here, this movie is slow-paced, and very deliberately so. And from what I've seen afterward of the largely favourable reaction online, there is indeed a proportion of the audience who feels short-changed. Yet from a production standpoint, writer and director Robert Eggers appears to offer far less than his contemporaries but the film gains so much more as a result...
After a comparatively brisk opening sequence in settler-era America, during which William's (Ralph Ineson) family is banished from the fledgling township for being very religious but not quite puritanical enough, the film trundles a few miles out into the countryside*1 and drops into a much lower gear, whereby the father, mother and four children are sporadically but methodically tormented by (purportedly) dark forces in the nearby woodland. And it's this grim claustrophobia which hangs around the audience's shoulders for much of the film, as events do unfurl, but at a pace designed to un-nerve rather than exhilirate.
And what a pleasant change it makes to have a 'horror' film which isn't just a shaky-cam padding around the cellar of an old house to a Quiet/Quiet/LOUD!™ audio-reel. I use the term horror fairly loosely as The Witch is more of a supernatural/psychological thriller, rather than the jump-circus that the genre has been prone to sliding into (for a long time, to be fair). And while even the movie itself shuns the H-word ("A New-England Folktale""), its marketing material can't quite bring itself to do the same. I suspect this genre-muddying will lead to a few disgruntled ratings from casual viewers scrolling through the EPG for something to go with the popcorn on a Saturday night. C'est la mort.
In fact, The Witch is such a well made film that I was rather put out by a couple of sticking points which stopped me from loving it...
The first thing is, you can have broad Lancashire accents for your boat-fresh, American settlers; you can have authentic 17th century period-dialogue for them; you can even have the cast mumbling their lines. But not all at once. As much as I admire the craft of what's been made here, whole scenes were pretty much lost to me just guessing what was being discussed through intonation and physical acting (which the performers achieve, to their credit). And I say that as someone who likes to think they have a good ear for accents (I certainly delight in spotting bad ones). Elsewhere Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, the two youngest members of the (speaking) cast are quite remarkable given what's required of them, but are constantly tripping over the unwieldy script. The overall effect is of a nice touch, taken slightly too far by an on-set continuity advisor. Probably the kind of thing I'd be responsible for, let's be honest.
And the other thing is that the film loses points for its thoroughly unnecessary final sequence (basically everything which happens after William's eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) wakes up in the dark). Although we do indeed see 'The Witch' at regular intervals, the film is very careful to show us a highly subjective view of outré events, only ever from one character's point-of-view. Although these are far more 'primitive' times than we as an audience are used to, we see that William's family are rooted in the practical traits of self-sufficient survival first and foremost. While they're as susceptible to folklore and superstition as most people were at that time, the events befalling the family are only put down to Witchcraft™ once all feasible alternatives have been exhausted, and even at the crescendo of the story we're not sure if what we're seeing is the work of the supernatural or psychosomatic insanity. Then the final few minutes of the film lifts this painstakingly crafted orb of nuance and ambiguity, and boots it over the fence into the pigshit yelling "Look, witches! Nudey ones an'all! And they're flying! Do you see?"
But y'know, apart from those gripes, The Witch is really rather good...
Having watched this directly after a Ben Wheatley film, I think it has a lot in common with A Field In England, funnily enough.
You shouldn't lose too much if you watch this at home, but you'll want to keep the lights low/off.
Despite my grumbling, it actually does.
This is Eggers' first feature film and he's set his bar pretty high. But a great cast reflect his work and vice-versa.
Level 2: Well, Ralph Ineson has been in pretty much everything except Star Wars, so let's slot him as appearing in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a movie which starred Mark 'Skywalker' Hamill and Sam 'Windu' Jackson.
No, I said it loses points for the ending and I bloody well meant it! :P
*1 Seriously though, is no-one else impressed that he's build a house, out there? Not like some hut or a luxury shed, but an actual house. With like wattle and daub walls and an upstairs and everything! He's built it out of, like, nothing (well y'know, the materials, obviously). But he's built it like, on his own (well, I imagine he got his four kids to help him, but anyone who's asked the kids to assist with any chore will know how much good they're going to be). No-one from the town would have been involved, because they're the ones who banished him out into the wilderness in the first place. I mean, the shed and the goat-pen are one thing, but this guy's built a bloody house! Hmm, well I thought it was good, anyway.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
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