Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Witch

The Witch (2015)

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers 

"The Witch - A New England Folktale" is a haunting, mesmerising, and deeply memorable film,  telling the story of a devout family in 1630s New England who set out from the Calvinist community where they live to forge an independent life for themselves, before things start to go awry with their idealistic plan.  This self-imposed exile is due to the excessive piety of the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), but it's clear from the outset that the rest of the family follow out of obedience rather than conviction; a tiny shake of the head "no" from eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) when the decision is made hints at the discord and anguish to come.  We can't even see her face fully at this point, but her dread drips off her. It is unbearably powerful.  The early, unexplained disappearance of the family's baby son Samuel whilst under Thomasin's care is ostensibly her fault, but as viewers we are asked if what we saw was actually what happened, or just what we thought we saw.  As the miserable curses and misfortunes pile up upon our protagonists, the viewer is constantly asked to judge whether this is a real, supernatural story, or if it's all going on in the mind.  And is it the mind of one of the main characters, or are we simply projecting our own expectations onto the story, as all the best films invite us to do?  Eggers tantalisingly shows the Witch more than once, but in different forms, and to different characters.  As such, it's gripping, challenging, deeply atmospheric, and thought-provoking throughout.

The film is not uneventful or remotely boring, even if it may feel slow at times.  Something happens in every scene - but it feels gradual, each scene purposely building. This is by no means a bad thing, because it means important things aren't trumpeted with loud shocks and scares - they just happen; it's deliberate.  The family's new home is at the edge of a wood, which the children are repeatedly warned to avoid. Eggers doesn't suddenly delve his camera into the unknown, but a repeated series of slow zooms towards it imply a gradual, creeping sense of wariness at the unknown forces which may or may not be therein.  The landscape is very much a character in the film.  It's empty, and unyielding, an un-tamed New England and a failing potential paradise.  When William and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) head into the forbidden zone of this forest early on, hoping to find animals caught in the traps previously set, darkness slowly creeps in around them, and their efforts to trap and kill come up frustratingly short.  Trying to shoot a stray hare William is injured by his own musket... whilst the hare stares un-nervingly back at them.  It could easily be seen as a casual moment, a simple misfire, but the staring hare moots something... the animals and the woods have a power which is going to come to bear on the family.  It's just this sort of unspecified menace which makes the film so effective, because everything is suggested, and nothing is certain.

Crucially, in a small-scale piece like this, the actors have to be first rate, and they absolutely are.  Ineson, Kate Dickie as grief-stricken wife Katherine, and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the young twins Jonas and Mercy are all outstanding (I was genuinely surprised to find that the twins weren't actually related, as young actors often are). Young Harvey is remarkably strong as the uncertain child on the cusp of manhood, grappling with the seduction and responsibilities entailed.  But take these words down now, in permanent marker:  Anya Taylor-Joy is a megastar of the future.  She's nothing short of phenomenal in this role.  Everything about her performance grabs the viewer from the first minute and it "relenteth not" (to borrow the vernacular).  As the story progresses the character seems to change visibly , physically and emotionally.  She starts off looking suitably drab, as one would expect of a Puritan girl, but in her increasing desperation to prove her innocence she seems to become more adult with every passing scene.  There are, for example, a couple of instances in which her  brother casts furtive glances at her breasts.  It's never meant to imply overt sexiness, but it just shows something a young, confused boy is going to feel.  The unexpected power of the film is that it never overstates any kind of sexual conflict between the girl and her family or her Mother or Father... it just makes the viewer peripherally aware of it. There is conflict and distrust of another sort. The film is about Thomasin's torment, and the question of her culpability in the events unfolding looms large, but is left open... to a point.  The Witch herself represents sex, but also decay and misery, and degradation; Thomasin seems to carry that conflict with her through the film.  Ultimately though, Taylor-Joy's performance is as gripping as it is unsettling. Just magnificent.

There have been observations of similarities between this film and "The Babadook" ( QV). There is certainly common ground in the notion of a horror existing solely in the mind and creating terror for a child, but the films are markedly different.  There are obvious thematic parallels too with something like "The Blair Witch Project" but "The Witch" eschews the sensationalist nonsense of that film, opting for atmospherics over obvious cheap shocks.  Appropriately, given its subtitle, there is clearly a deep knowledge of "witch culture" behind the script, evident in the nuances; the suckling of animals, or the overtly sexualised presence, for example, of the seemingly innocent creatures around the farm. Malcolm Gaskill's great book "Witchfinders" recounts many of these stories and shows how much fact and hearsay are easily blurred.  The film foreshadows too, in the latter parts of the story, the ideas of paranoia and mistrust central to Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". A witch hunt erupts here in miniature.

A strange thing happened to me before going in to see this.  For some reason, I had imagined that the film was shot in black and white.  Something in the back of my head said "Puritan era psychological horror... obviously going to be B&W".  I had a recollection of seeing the trailer several times, and stills from it, and had somehow remembered them all as being monochrome.  This was obviously a spurious assumption, and I've struggled to work out why I would have carried such a bogus thought into the cinema.  It's possibly due to the mid-17th Century setting, and my fondness for "A Field in England", Ben Wheatley's massively compelling English Civil War character face-off (also QV) that made me think a film set at this time must be similarly depicted.  Of course the film is in colour, which set me real as soon as it started, and drew me into it.  But it's a purposefully very drab, dry palette, with only the occasional, shocking stain of brightness.  The red cloak of The Witch herself, and the occasional horrible  splash of blood is sparingly used, but all the more jarring for it. The cinematography is wonderful though, creating such a vivid picture of the harsh landscape in which the characters find themselves.  There's a recurring movement of the camera which is unsettling as it is powerful.  The effect is deeply unsettling, but simultaneously it conveys a sense of observing something we shouldn't be seeing.  Mark Korven's creepy, discordant score adds to the mood.  Unease pervades all before it.

Films occasionally worm their way into consciousness, but it's rare that one stays there, and lingers in the brain for days on end. "The Witch" has done just that. It's distinctive, but strangely redemptive. It's really well worth catching, whenever you can.

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