The Witch (2015)
I have had this DVD on my shelf for a long time now, and finally got around to watching it today. It is an American/Canadian production, but two of the leads are well-known British character actors.
New England, 1630, and in a Puritan settlement, one family is banished, for insisting on a different interpretation of The Bible. William leaves the settlement with his wife and four children, heading off to the edge of the distant woods, where he starts his own farm, with his family as helpers. A baby son is born, and life, though difficult, seems to be working out well for the family. One day, the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is looking after baby Samuel. In the blink of an eye, the baby disappears, leaving the family distraught. No amount of searching helps, and the boy is presumed lost to a wolf.
William’s wife, Catherine, (Kate Dickie) is inconsolable, refusing to sleep, and praying for the return of her baby. Thomasin is left to do most of the work, along with her brother, Caleb. The small twins are constantly bothering everyone with their mindless chatter and singing, and they also claim to be able to speak to the family’s black billy goat. When Thomasin and Caleb overhear their parents arranging to sell the girl into service to provide money for the farm, Caleb decides that they should take the horse and musket, and hunt for some furs to sell instead.
Lost in the woods, Caleb runs off in search of the family dog, and Thomasin is thrown from the startled horse. Discovering the children are missing, William (Ralph Ineson) heads off in search of them. He finds Thomasin, but there is no sign of Caleb, and the dog, horse, and musket are gone too. Back home, Catherine is half-crazed with anger at her daughter, and distraught to lose another son. But later that night, Caleb returns. The boy is naked, scratched and injured, and unable to speak. The twins accuse Thomasin of witchcraft, and she retaliates by alleging that they are both witches, who claim to speak to the black goat.
Events spiral out of control. Unable to believe any of the children, William shuts them in the barn with the goats, threatening to take them back to the settlement, to be tried as witches. Catherine is having visions, and placing her faith in religion to make everything right. But it soon becomes clear that nothing is going to be right. In fact, it is very much the opposite. Without spoilers, I cannot elaborate, I’m afraid.
This film is nothing like a period drama, and bears little relation to a conventional supernatural horror film. Yet it is a little of both, leaving me thinking that I had watched ‘The Crucible’, mixed in with ‘The Blair Witch Project’. The atmosphere of 17th century New England, with its fiery religion, harsh living conditions, and fear of the unknown is all beautifully conveyed. The costumes and characters never feel less than completely authentic, and there are few ‘make you jump’ moments. In fact, the viewer is rather cleverly led down a path expecting one thing, and something very different happens.
Kate Dickie is just right as the despairing Catherine, and Ralph Ineson looks suitably solid as the weary farmer. But American actress Anya Taylor-Joy steals the film, with a fine performance as the confused and put-upon Thomasin. She is a girl just trying to do the right thing for her family, who can seem to do nothing right in their eyes. Always moody and atmospheric, and benefiting from a startling fantasy sequence in the finale, this is something very different in the genre.
My one gripe is that the film-maker decided to use ‘natural light’. This works well in the outdoor scenes, and adds great mood to the claustrophobic inside of the cabin, lit by just two candles most of the time. But many of the most important scenes are at night, often in dark woodland. We see what the characters are supposed to be able to see, which in some instances is just total darkness.