Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a high-school standard, has been sold to us since 1953 as the American equal of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Miller’s play remains the only major American dramatization of the 1692 Salem witch hysteria, and that’s a shame. In 1953, The Crucible struck many as a comment on Senator McCarthy’s communist “witch-hunts.” The new movie version reveals the play as what it always was: a melodrama about a married guy who shouldn’t have dallied with a vengeful girl. Miller took a huge liberty with the facts. In his story, the girl, Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder), is 17; her married lover, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), is around 35. In fact, John was 60 in 1692; Abigail was only 11. Obviously, there was no affair. The problem isn’t that Miller diddled with the facts; it’s that his diddling reduces the Salem tragedy to “Hell hath no fury like a teenage girl scorned.”
Director Nicholas Hytner opens with a group of girls dancing and carrying on around a fire. One of them is Abigail, caught red-handed (and red-lipped) after drinking blood in a love ritual. The girls are quick to blame their Satanic behavior on the big bad guy himself: they claim to have been bewitched by a score of villagers, and Abigail accuses John’s wife Elizabeth (Joan Allen) of putting horrible spells on her. It’s Abigail’s revenge on Elizabeth, who ended the affair. Miller also wrote the script, and Hytner treats the old master’s text with at least as much reverence as the pious Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison) shows for the word of God. Hytner knocks himself out trying to make the play cinematic, but Miller hasn’t made the play into a screenplay. At one point, Abigail simply vanishes, and her departure is explained by a line of dialogue. In a movie, we expect to see, not to be told.
Hytner’s previous film, The Madness of King George, was the polar opposite of The Crucible: it was an exuberant, intelligent entertainment full of terrific performances. This time, Hytner is asleep at the wheel. The actors, with four exceptions, spend their time shrieking and spitting at the camera. Ryder comes off the worst: she looks the part, but whenever she opens her mouth, it’s over. To be fair, she also gets the most unsayable lines: “I look for John Proctor who put knowledge in my heart,” etc.
Joan Allen (Nixon) gives yet another quietly great performance as the repressed Elizabeth; she makes you wish that Miller had given her more to do. Rob Campbell (Unforgiven) is low-key and smart as the visiting Reverend Hale, who slowly realizes how insane Salem is becoming, and Karron Graves, a newcomer to movies, brings some poignancy to the pivotal role of the Proctors’ frightened servant Mary Warren. But the main reason to see The Crucible is Paul Scofield as the grim inquisitor Judge Danforth. His line readings are lasers slicing through Miller’s murky drama. In the film’s best moment, Scofield’s judge slam-dunks Parris with the precisely inflected “Mr. Parris, you are a … brainless man.” Without him, The Crucible would be as humorless as a Puritan.