Intro – Real Witches Of the New World
Released in March of this year, Robert Eggar’s The Witch is a refreshing break from the over-produced and tiresomely predictable horrors that have churned out of Hollywood in recent years…
It follows the misfortunes of a family of puritan settlers in 1630 New England, after they are forced out of their community and attempt to start a new settlement at the edge of a foreboding forest…
Eggar has rooted this work in realism and historical accuracy and uses low-key British actors as opposed to porcelain looking starlets, ensuring the dialogue is delivered as closely to the original articulation as could be reasonably expected. Furthermore, the complete absence of special effects further punctuates this picture’s break from the mainstream.
Witches were perceived as a genuine threat in the 17th century, both spiritually and physically. As Eggar frequently stated in interviews, his intention to emphasise this real world threat, the movie presents the traditional images and folklore of witchcraft, akin to those originally featured in the more macabre Grimm fairy tales, before they were sanitised by Disney.
The English Actors
Ralph Ineson gives a commendable performance as the family patriarch. His undeniable Englishness and rough demeanour lend themselves well to the role – a far cry from his days as ‘Finchy’ in The Office. The family children are all played adeptly, given what must have been a challenging environment for them to film in. Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter, Thomasin—who is arguably the focus of the suspicions throughout the movie—seems a little lacklustre in comparison to her fellow artistes, but believable nonetheless. The really standout performance is given my Katie Dickie, as the grief ridden Katherine who maintains a constant air of foreboding throughout the movie.
Script, Plot and Themes of The Witch
The script itself is based upon surviving diaries and notes of contemporary accounts. It has echoes of Shakespearean dialect. To give an idea, much of the conversation is in the nature of ‘what say thee’, ‘she be the witch’ – essential to maintain the illusion, but at times a little challenging.
There isn’t a great deal by way of a plot, it’s fairly basic: the family leave their original plantation, start their own and struggle to provide for themselves. All the while a malevolent presence seems to be stalking them. The merits of The Witch lie in it’s atmosphere, accuracy and the gradual building of suspense, rather than any narrative set-pieces.
The themes of The Witch are introduced in the opening scenes: religious devotion, familial conflict and fear of the unknown. The ritualistic elements of both puritanism and paganism – particularly the those of prayer and sacrifice – are built upon throughout the picture as we, the audience, experience the family members’ personal conflicts and temptations as they struggle to meet the impossible standards of the puritan dogma.
The family’s constant struggle for survival against both natural and supernatural elements add an urgency to everything and exaggerate the consequences of even the most minor malady.
Low level camera angles or shots partially obscured by tree branches help to create a sense of claustrophobia, despite the events taking place against the backdrop of expansive wilderness, and Mark Korven’s soundtrack is of the atmospheric, that is, non-musical kind and at some times abrasive to the ears. It builds discord and an uncomfortable response, keeping the viewer on edge.
An unsettling experience overall— the idea that children are being targeted by a evil daemon is never going to be lighthearted and the eerie soundtrack and claustrophobic cinematography do a good job of keeping the audience in suspense.
Mention has to be made of the satisfying ending. At times The Witch looks as the it is leading toward the now cliched plot-twist or ambiguous ending, but fortunately resolution to the story is offered as blatantly as slap in the face and it was refreshing to see Eggar commit to it in such a way.
That being said, It did feel a little unfulfilling. Perhaps this viewer has now been corrupted by years of exposure to the aforementioned cliches, but the film as a whole didn’t feel quite engaging enough to rely so heavily on the atmospheric subtlety that it did. If viewed as a creepy historical thriller, then the film is a tour de force, but as a film to scare the living daylights out of the viewer, it falls short.
Overall, The Witch is a welcome break from the copious supernatural fantasies that have proliferated in cinema over the last decade. It gives viewers a genuinely suspenseful cinematic experience as well as an insight into historical superstitions and existential hardships of the 17th century.