Time: 124 mins.
Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Allen) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
SYNOPSIS: The Salem witch hunts are given a new and nasty perspective when a vengeful teenage girl uses superstition and repression to her advantage, creating a killing machine that becomes a force unto itself.
BOTTOM LINE: A trio of powerful performances gives Arthur Miller's classic play about the Salem Witch Trials an allegory for the anti-Communist hearings plaguing Hollywood at the time a devastating dramatic punch. Ryder gives the best performance of her career as Abigail, the scorned woman who starts all the trouble...just because she can. For her it's simply emotional revenge. Rather than accept John's denial of her advances, her character decides to remove her competition in a more permanent way. Day-Lewis is equally powerful as the upright, married farmer who refuses to give in to her charms despite the deadly consequences. It's a minor flirtation gone seriously wrong.
His faithful wife, who radiates dignity and intelligence throughout the proceedings is played by the exquisite Joan Allen, in her first major studio role. Her character is the moral center of the film. An innocent caught in a web of lies and hysteria, who chooses death over dishonor. She knows once the ball is rolling, the outcome is irreversible. The town can't see past their own hysteria and someone has to pay. How do you prove you're not a witch? Even if she admits to the charge, they're going to kill her anyway. It's a truly horrifying situation with no way out. She knows god is with her and decides to take the high road and go out with dignity. She will not give Abby the pleasure of seeing her sweat. She's so stalwart and calm, the judge knows she's innocent, but leaving her alive will tear the fledgling town apart and he needs to nip this in the bud before more damage is done.
Though the trials are a part of our history, Miller uses them to share his utter horror at his compatriots behavior in the face of the same type of fear and control perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s. The film shows how the mere charge of witchcraft manipulates normally intelligent, honest people into ones willing to do anything to save themselves, even accuse others they know to be innocent. Or people they never liked in the first place to get rid of them. Truth never enters the equation because fear is more powerful. It's both religious and political, a cautionary tale that speaks eloquently for both groups those from Salem and Hollywood persecuted for both their beliefs and their courage in the face of personal danger. It's an important story, brilliantly brought to life, that everyone needs to see.