Sunday, 20 July 2014

Witness (1985)

Once every year there tends to be a studio concept doing the rounds which is impossible to ignore. In 1985 Witness fitted that bill. Its intriguing premise is the best that Hollywood has ever dreamt up over its long history.

If you are ever fortunate enough to meet a screenwriter, ask them about Peter Weir’s great feature and watch as their eyes light up in excitement.

Ingeniously playing on Harrison Ford’s usual role as the reluctant hero, he is cast as John Book, a straight-laced city detective who must protect an Amish boy when he witnesses a murder. It just so happens that the culprits are crooked colleagues of the protagonist, meaning it is a case of good cop versus corrupt cops, played out in one of the small villages where the ultra-conservative religious communities live. Book’s sense of duty is heightened when he falls in love with the child’s mother, played by Kelly McGillis.

How does a close knit pacifist society cope with a man that uses violence as a pragmatic necessity in their midst? That is the most fascinating question which the script throws up in its thrilling and moody narrative.

Although he ultimately embraces the community and partly adopts their values, the Amish collective cannot bring themselves to accommodate to Book’s tough worldliness. When his job is done, having inevitably seen off the villains (including a pre-Lethal Weapon Danny Glover), the honourable policeman packs his bags and drives away. There is no weepy farewell from the would-be lovers, instead favouring a true ending, devoid of the usual fairytale conclusions and sanctimonious Hollywood moralising.

After all, it must have been very tempting to finish the last scene with the mother and child abandoning their home to live with the good looking hero. Thank goodness the writers managed to ensure the ending remained downbeat.

Before then, the film also works wonders to highlight, as fairly as possible, the equal blessings and curses of the Amish way of life. For all the visual splendour and general calm of an old-fashioned agricultural living, anyone might die from basically treated conditions because ‘modern’ medicine is normally forbidden. And, of course, repeatedly throughout the movie, the challenges of adopting an absolutely pacifist philosophy is laid bare.

My favourite moment is when the mother and son are waiting in a train station to return home from the city. Their social discomfort at the crowds of people, added to the fear of being easily noticed and teased thanks to their puritan attire, is made so powerfully obvious that any viewer can see how brilliantly Witness has considered the sensitivity of what it is depicting. It is brilliant filmmaking made to look simple.

A smart concept alone is never enough to win prestige, but for its overall quality of assemblage and sheer intelligence, Witness is undoubtedly a movie masterpiece.


No comments:

Post a Comment