Sunday, January 13, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Witness

Witness, 1985, Paramount, Directed by Peter Weir, Story by William Kelley, Pamela Wallace, and Earl Wallace, Screenplay by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, Paramount DVD, 1:85:1

Australian director Peter Weir, living as does is in a world of ever increasing cultural globalisation, ever increasing diversity, ever increasing cultural contact, and ever increasing complexities of identity, has long been fascinated by culture conflict in his films whether it is the cultural conflict of the staid versus more erotic Victorian cultures of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), the aboriginal versus Euro-Australian cultures of The Last Wave (1977), the European versus Indonesian cultures of The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), the paranoiac, non-paranoiac, and Belizean guerrilla cultures of The Mosquito Coast (1986), the American versus French cultures of Green Card (1990), or the “normal” versus fearless cultures of Fearless (1993). The culture conflict on display in Weir’s Witness is the culture conflict is between the 20th century world of the English, the world of John Book, and the 19th century world of the Amish, the world of Rachel, Samuel, and Eli Lapp, a juxtaposition of different times and places Weir says is reminiscent of science fiction in the wonderful documentary on Witness on the Witness Special Collectors Edition of the DVD.

Witness begins amidst the waving green grasses of grain in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After the death of her husband Jacob Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) leaves the safe world of the Amish along with her son Samuel (Lukas Haas) to visit a relative near Baltimore by train. While Rachel and Samuel wait in Philadelphia for a train to Baltimore that has been delayed Samuel witnesses a brutal murder of a policeman in the washroom of Philadelphia’s Union Station. After questioning by Philadelphia detective John Book it becomes clear that it was a narcotics cop by the name of James McFee (Danny Glover) who Samuel saw murder the policeman in the Union Station washroom. Smelling a bad cop Book contacts his chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommers) about his suspicions about McFee. When McFee tries to kill but succeeds only in wounding Book, it becomes clear to Book that Schaeffer is in league with McFee. Fearing for his and Samuel’s lives Book flees Philadelphia with Rachel and Samuel in tow for the safety of Rachel’s, Samuel’s, and Eli’s (Jan Rubes) farm in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, a culture which, as a local policeman tells Schaeffer, is home to hundreds of Lapp’s, hundreds of Rachel’s, but no Amish with telephones. There the wounded Book is nursed back to health with the aid of Amish herbal remedies and the ministrations of Rachel. As Book slowly recovers he helps Eli on the farm, builds a toy for Samuel, repairs the birdhouse he crashed into as he tried to leave the Lapp farm after he dropped off Rachel and Samuel, helps raise an Amish barn, and begins to fall in love with Rachel. He becomes more Plain and he becomes more innocent. Rachel begins to fall in love with Book too and as she does she becomes more rebellious, more "modern", more "English". Book’s and Rachel’s love, however, is as doomed as the relationship between Romeo and Juliet if more for cultural than clan reasons. After Book kills McFee and Fergie and shames the once good cop Schaeffer into submission, a three of whom have finally traced Book down to the Lapp farm and have come to kill him, Book returns to his world and Rachel remains in hers where she seems fated to marry Daniel Hochleitner (Alexander Godonov), the man who has been enamoured of her since the beginning of the film and who is jealous of Book because of Rachel’s attentions toward him.

There is so much I love and admire about Witness. I love it that Weir and director of photography and fellow Australian John Seale allow their camera and the faces of their actors rather than words to sometimes do their talking for them as in the scene where Book and Rachel say everything they have to say to each other with their eyes and facial expressions as he is about to leave the Lapp farm to return to his Philadelphia world. I love how Weir and Seale film the scenes inside the Amish farmhouse as though they were right out of a seventeenth century Dutch Masters painting. Weir and Seale confirm in the documentary on the Witness Collectors Edition DVD that it was the paintings of Johannes Vermeer that served as their model for the indoor shots in the Amish farmhouse. I love how Weir counterpoints the dirty and poverty filled and faster paced streets and places of Philadelphia with the natural beauty and slower pace of rural Amish Pennsylvania. I love how Weir plays with Fordian community motifs as in the barn raising scene, the dance scene, though the Books’s and Rachel’s dance to the music of Sam Cooke is less a Fordian community dance than a dance in which Book and Rachel fall in love, the gunfight scene in which the gun battle between Book and McFee and Fergie is transposed from the OK corral of My Darling Clementine to the Amish barn of Witness, and in the scene in which the Amish community comes to Book’s and the Lapp’s aid as the farmstead is attacked by the corrupt Philly cops when they hear Samuel ringing the bell. I love the silences in Witness, silences during which we can hear the wind blowing gently across the green Pennsylvania wheat, silences during which you see Samuel discover who the murderer is and tell Book that he is discovered who the murderer is with his eyes and his expressions, and silences during which you can see the eyes of Book and Rachel meet and the expressions on their faces as their eyes meet and then hide from each other, silences all that tell us so much about story and character. I love Maurice Jarre’s music for the film which, in its use of modern instruments and folk like melodies alike and the use of "Wonderful World" both of which bring the two worlds of Witness, English and Amish, together if only for a fleeting and ultimately tragic moment.

Witness, by the way, proved to be somewhat controversial when it came out. Some Lancaster County Amish--Witness was filmed in Strassburg and Intercourse, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia--were apparently unhappy with the violence, particularly that when Harrison Ford beats up two “hoodlums” while in “Plain” clothing, and the brief nudity in the film. Some Amish were unhappy that Kelly McGillis spent time with an Amish widow with seven children to learn the ways of the Amish. Some academic commentators questioned what they saw as Weir’s romanticisation of quaint Amish culture particularly in relation to the not so quaint and violent culture of Book’s Philadelphia. I suppose it would be interesting to ask viewers what they thought about the Amish culture on the screen as they watched Witness. I can say that I didn’t and don’t romanticise Amish culture because, when I was young, I lived near two Anabaptist communities and know just how difficult and how unromantic Amish life was and is. Regardless of these controversies Witness, which cost an estimated $12 million dollars to make, brought in $65.5 million at the US box office alone. Those, of course, are numbers Hollywood likes.

Witness is film making of the highest order. I give it four stars. Superb film.

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