Sunday 27 March 2016

The VVitch (US 2015: Dir Robert Eggers)

It's over a week since I saw The VVitch. I'm usually much quicker at applying finger to keyboard when reviewing films, but lots of things have conspired to prevent this piece appearing before now. So I'm writing this with some week old memories of the movie and a few notes I jotted down at the time, but it doesn't really matter because The VVitch is still firmly imprinted in my mind and probably will be for weeks to come. It's an extraordinary film.

Subtitled A New-England Folktale, the movie is that rare thing, a genuinely gripping slow burner. William and Katherine, two devout Puritans living in America in the early 17th century, are exiled from a community who cannot tolerate their levels of religious fanaticism. Forced into the wilderness to be closer to God, they set up a homestead in the middle of the country at the edge of a large forest and eke out their existence with their five children, often living at near starvation levels. When the youngest child Sam mysteriously goes missing (the initial belief is that the child has been abducted by a wolf but the audience know different) the family, steeped in grief and with their crops failing, gradually turn their suspicions on each other and then to Thomasin, the oldest child, suspecting her of being a witch. Their concerns are misdirected, but the truth is much closer to reality than they think.

If you haven't seen the film yet, it's best not to read on. One of the clever things about The VVitch is how it subverts our accepted understanding of history, which tells us that the witch trials which followed in the US later in the century were about the subjugation of uneducated women by male dominated authority figures rather than anything supernatural. This film defies that understanding by showing us that the things these women were accused of were real. That first time feature director Robert Eggars achieves this without any of it seeming silly is in part due to the script being written using authentic dialogue of the 17th century - the awkward verbosity requires the audience to listen closely but never to be comfortable with what they're hearing. There is some fine acting here too. Ralph Ineson's performance - and his sonorous, portentous voice - makes us easily forget his roles in TV comedies and voice overs for adverts. Kate Dickie as his wife Katherine has less to do but is convincingly distressed (she has one scene, towards the end of the film, that will haunt you for days), and the children, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, are all very effective.

But it's the visuals that elevate The VVitch above the usual genre fare. The forest that is the backdrop to their homestead - actually filmed in Ontario, Canada - is one of the most frightening uses of exteriors I've seen in a movie, and the sense of isolation and the threat of what might lie in those woods is palpable. The small details of farm life leap from woodcuts of the time and the horror, when it arrives, is very well handled by being glimpsed rather than overtly shown. The final scene, which in most other directors' hands would appear perhaps clumsy and obvious, provides a strange almost optimistic coda to a film which spends most of its time mired in pessimism.

Yes I loved The VVitch. It's slow, sometimes dangerously so, and although critics have generally loved it it's perhaps too niche for commercial success. But in its way this is a Haxan for our times, and I can't give it a bigger compliment than that.

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