Winona Ryder is bewitching as a woman at the end of her rope, but new film ``The Crucible' lets the fire go out Paying for its Sins

December 20, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Hell, it is said, hath no fury like a woman scorned, but that statement has a corollary that bears repeating: Movies about scorned women are really cool.

Why, then, one wonders, does "The Crucible" lose interest in its second half with Winona Ryder's crazed and evil yet astute Abigail Williams, who is driving it ahead like an evangelical in full froth? The story at the halfway point exiles her to its environs, and seldom again do we feel the lash of her dementia, the whip of her wit, the focus of her anger and crucifying will.

Instead, we shift to that most boring of subjects, the pain and anguish of her victims. We hear them scream, but we remain curiously unmoved, for the law of cinema is different from the law of morality, which is the law of cinema's primary pleasure: The movies favor the active over the passive, the strong over the weak, the nasty over the nice.

The nice, in this case, is Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor, a lean and sinewy farmer who has set the whole blessed witch thing in motion by dallying carnally with Abigail and then, sick with Puritan guilt and eager to please his angered wife, exiling her from his household. You could argue -- though Arthur Miller, who adapted his own play for this second screen version, doesn't -- that he deserves what he gets, for there are always consequences; too bad so many other folks had to swing in the process.

Anyway, hysterical with rejection, Abigail uses her considerable wiles to gin the town teen girls into some kind of devil worship ceremony by which she hopes to celebrate her lust and regain Proctor's favor; but the ceremony is witnessed, two of the others go into hysterical paralysis and hard questions are asked. In explaining it, she tumbles to her own ability to whip up a witch scare in downtown Salem, and soon enough the innocent are dangling from gallows, and the men with the rope are closing in on Proctor and his wife.

Famously, Miller's 1692 Salem-set parable is known as a symbolic denunciation of the McCarthy Witch Hunts of the 1950s, where nasty boys from the House, Senate and FBI went hellhound-hot on the tail of various pinkos, commies and fellow travs, who should have been shunned on the grounds of bad taste in dictators but perhaps not ruined for treason. Most of them lacked the guts for treason, anyway. But as a parable, this version of "The Crucible" is entirely too realistic to suggest wider connotations: It's set in a hardscrabble 17th-century village where everybody is filthy and flea-bitten, the streets are a gruel of mud and dung, and the off-sea breezes bitter and killing.

The physical production of the film is so authentic and compelling, you can't get beyond it, not for a second. In some way, it's not generic enough to suggest other meanings. It seems merely to be about the evils of teen-age hormones.

Miller, as I say, has adapted his own play, and flintlock-age specialist Nicholas Hyntner ("The Madness of King George") has directed it on an uninhabited Massachusetts island, which explains the feeling of utter reality the piece has and which, after Ryder's absolutism, is the movie's best feature. A notable surviving feature from the era in which the play was written is Miller's cynicism about human nature and the political process. No motive is pure, no stalwart is effective, only momentum counts.

Paul Scofield has a chilling turn as a magistrate brought down from Boston to get to the bottom of all this, and while he doesn't believe in witches, he believes in the blackness-whiteness of his own court, and he believes he's restoring public order. Bruce Davison is equally culpable as a leader of the witch-hunting faction who is trying desperately to hang on to his profitable position as the town's minister. Then there's Rob Campbell as an ineffective liberal who tries to mount a defense for the accused but is quickly reduced to futile barking. It's truly a scoundrel time.

Day-Lewis's Proctor is simply too noble to be believed -- he's a '50s conceit that nobody has bothered to update, and his refusal to accept responsibility for Abigail's actions until too late rings hollow and annoying.

If you want to play the game of parable, you could argue that he inadvertently represents what Miller himself would not face -- the American left's bumbling complicity in Soviet espionage activities over a long period that made the crudities of the '50s inevitable. Proctor's dalliance made the hangings inevitable; there are consequences to everything, even if the playwright hasn't the guts to face them.

'The Crucible'

Starring Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis

Directed by Nicholas Hyntner

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG-13 (adult themes)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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