To demonstrate my empathy with the themes of The Crucible, I ‘m going to engage in a bit of heresy of my own: I don’t think Arthur Miller’s play is particularly good. I’m not suggesting that it is dated, as other critics have done. Irrational fear and extremism are alive and well in America today. The ideas in The Crucible were never the issue, but those weighty issues overwhelmed underdeveloped characters. Productions of The Crucible have lived or died on the ability of the actors to invest the material with feeling missing from the page, and this first English-language film of the play is no different. Fortunately, the cast is very strong, and the conventions of cinema give the energy level a much-needed boost. Flawed as it may be, The Crucible still has moments of undeniable power.
Set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, The Crucible begins with a gathering in the woods where several young girls, led by Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) play at conjuring spirits. The fun ends when they are discovered by Reverend Parris (Bruce Davidson) and the Reverend’s own daughter is frightened into a catatonic state. To save themselves from punishment, the girls begin accusing Salem’s women of witchcraft, naming names indiscriminately. Abigail, however, has one specific name in mind: Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen), wife of her former lover, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). As Salem becomes a town ruled by paranoia, Judge Danforth (Paul Scofield) arrives to try the accused witches. Only a few men like Proctor are brave enough to challenge the court.
Miller’s 1953 play is well known as an allegory for the “Red Scare” and the blacklisting of the 1950s, but Miller’s own screen adaptation attempts to make the story less specific to that era, while also making it more visual. The girls’ ritual gathering, only describe by other characters in the play, is shown in graphic detail, as is an incident in which Abigail stabs herself with a needle and accuses Elizabeth of hexing her. The scenes are not included simply for shock value, but to emphasize the active hypocrisy of the accusers. They also make Abigail less a creature of youthful spite and more a deeply disturbed young woman caught up in the attention and admiration she receives for out the witches of Salem. Winona Ryder does some of her best work ever in the role, shedding the restrained quality of her previous period-film performances. Here she lets loose like an animal—desperate, haunted, and dangerous.
Ryder is one part of a cast that gives it all to The Crucible, beginning with Paul Scofield as Danforth. Scofield brings a commanding, weathered presence to the role of Salem’s Grand Inquisitor and a conviction that the judge’s work is good and proper. He also gives lines a punch few other actors could muster; when he announces that he intends to “touch the bottom of the swamp” of accusations and counter-accusations, he utters the word “swamp” with a fearsome authority. Joan Allen’s steady, cool Elizabeth is just what the part calls for, and she shows that passive-aggressive behavior is not a uniquely 20th-century phenomenon. Surprisingly, the weak link in the cast is Daniel Day-Lewis. In both the play and the movie, Proctor is an underwritten role. However, in the movie there is too much self-righteous heroism in Day-Lewis’s reading. When he delivers his final plea to avoid a public confession, literally foaming at the mouth, he almost seems to believe he deserves special consideration.
Underwritten characters and underdeveloped relationships are the main faults of The Crucible as a text; at times, it feels nearly as plot-driven as a Michael Crichton novel. The story is meant to provoke outrage at the lives destroyed by false accusers and complicit authority figures, but it only takes a couple of scenes to make this point. After this, the children’s accusations begin to seem repetitive. Still, there are a couple of scenes in The Crucible which can get any audience to hold its breath, notably a tense questioning of Elizabeth for which there can be no correct answer. Director Nicholas Hynter (The Madness of King George) offers an interpretation, which isn’t in the least iconoclastic, but he knows where to use George Fenton’s score or a lingering close-up to give a scene added weight. The Crucible is a good (though not great) adaptation of a good (though not great) play, which still has the ability to cast its own spell.