A few nights ago I finally got around the watching a movie that’s been on my to-watch list for a while, the 2016 feature-length debut from writer / director Robert Eggers, “The Witch”.
Subtitled as a “New-England Folktale”, the film begins in 1630 with a scene in which William (Ralph Ineson – “Case Sensitive”, “The Office”) is appearing before the elders of the Puritan plantation on which he and his family live, as he has a fundamental difference of opinion over interpretation of the biblical text by which they live their lives.
William, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie – “Midwinter Of The Spirit”, “Prometheus”) and their four children are banished from the plantation and set off to make their lives on a farm near the edge of a large forest some distance from the plantation.
Eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy – “Split”, Morgan”) is struggling with the demands of the family’s faith but determined to do the right thing. One day she is playing peek-a-boo outside with Katherine’s new baby Samuel when he suddenly disappears. We, the viewer, then see the baby’s body being used by a witch to make a flying ointment. Katherine is devastated and clearly feels that Thomasin is at least partly to blame for Samuel’s disappearance.
The young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger – “The Village”) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) claim that the family’s goat, Black Phillip, speaks to them and they take next to no notice of instructions given by their elder sister, increasing her inner torment.
The parents discuss sending Thomasin away to work for another family as she approaches woman-hood and the farm’s crops fail once again, a conversation overhead by their daughter and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw – “Oranges And Sunshine”). This leads Caleb to set off in the early hours into the forest in an attempt to hunt for food so that Thomasin won’t have to leave. She goes with him but falls from the horse when Caleb rushes off after a hare and is knocked out.
Deep in the forest Caleb spots a small hut and when he approaches is met by an attractive young woman (model Sarah Stephens) who proves to be a witch, and maybe not as attractive as she first seems. When Thomasin reawakens she manages to find her father but, though they search, there is no sign of Caleb.
Katherine takes this as further proof that Thomasin is evil, and when Caleb returns, naked and barely conscious, her impression is further strengthened when the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, tell their mother than Thomasin had claimed to be a witch. Thomasin counter-claims that the twins speak with Black Phillip. William responds by locking the three children, along with the goat, in the stable for the night, intending that the family should return to the plantation the next day. However, with all kinds of weird and violent events unfolding thereafter what will become of the family?…
I’ve probably said too much already, but I really can’t go too much further into the story without definitely giving too much away. Suffice it to say that this is a pretty decent film. The cinematography gives the whole thing a suitably bleak feel, given the hard times that William’s family are enduring, and it all feels nicely atmospheric too.
The ending of the movie felt a little strange at the time of viewing, but a subsequent read of this article helped to make more sense of things – though it’s best read after viewing the movie! Taylor-Joy and Ineson, in particular, were excellent in their roles but all of the small cast are very good.
The dialogue and religious aspect of the film felt realistic for the period of history in which it is set, when witch trials and executions were happening in New England and indeed the end titles claim that much of the dialogue is based upon real diaries and court transcripts etc. from that time, throwing light on the effects of a strict religious lifestyle mixed with the superstition of the age.