Film Review: Witness (1985)



Although it happens extremely rarely, Hollywood films can be educational. It happened in 1985 with Witness, crime drama directed by Peter Weir. That film is responsible for making "Amish", word until that time used only by those familiar with relatively small and obscure Mennonite sect in Pennsylvania, into entry in world’s vocabularies and part of global popular culture.

The opening titles set the plot in 1984 Pennsylvania, but for the Amish, traditionalist community that rejects modern technology, world hasn’t changed in past century or so. Rachel Lapp (played by Kelly McGillis) is young Amish woman who has recently lost a husband and now has to visit a relative in Baltimore. For her eight-year-old son Samuel (played by Lukas Haas) this is a first opportunity to travel by train and experience strange world of the people Amish call "the English". While using restroom at Philadelphia train station young boy accidentally sees brutal murder. The victim was undercover policeman and the case is investigated by police detective John Book (played by Harrison Ford). His efforts to find the suspect go nowhere until Samuel, again by accident, point to photograph depicting Lt. James McFee (played by Danny Glover), a narcotics detective. Realising that the murder was part of broader narcotics-related conspiracy within police ranks, Book informs his superior, Chief Paul Schaeffer (played by Josef Sommer) only to get attacked and wounded by McFee. Now aware that Schaeffer is too involved, Book decides to bring Rachel and Sam back to their home, where they would be difficult to track down by corrupt policemen. Book himself is forced to stay there and recover from his injuries and, while he plans his next move, he gets familiar with Amish, their pacifist views and traditional way of life and also becomes aware of his feelings towards beautiful widow.

Script by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley was awarded Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and deservingly so. It very effectively used the genre template of police thriller as the framework for fascinating ethnographic study and story that combines motives of culture clash with old-fashioned romance. Peter Weir, Australian director, apparently liked this approach for his Hollywood debut and used his skills to create series of interesting scenes that depict the Amish and their fascinating world that seems so out of place in modern era, yet it looks like better alternative to violence, corruption and dysfunction of 1980s urban America. There is relatively little action in the film, except at the beginning (during murder scene) and at the very end (during inevitable showdown). In both cases Weir shows great skill in creating tension while showing the protagonist (Samuel and Book) as ingenious while trying to survive. Weir also makes the finale of the film somewhat unconventional, at least in the way protagonist finally triumphs over villains, using more common sense and brain instead of brawn. This is very much in line with generally pacifistic tone of the film, and rejection of violence, so different from macho heroism of 1980s Hollywood, was probably inspired by Cold War anxieties.

Despite being so different from the films that made Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris so popular, Witness had impressive results at box office. It could be mostly attributed to Harrison Ford in the main role. The actor associated mostly with Spielberg’s and Lucas’ light-hearted blockbusters enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to be in a serious drama and many critics tend to think of John Book as the best role of Ford’s career. He very convincingly portrays tough policeman who is forced to live in a strange world he might respect but never truly belong to. Ford, who liked this role for giving him rare opportunity to display some of real life carpentry skills (including the famous barn-building scene), is well-matched by McGillis, an actress who became one of great female stars of 1980s. In Witness she delivered very good performance, partially due to her meticulous preparation which included living in Amish household. Other members of the cast are also good, including Czech veteran actor Jan Rubeš as Rachel’s father and Russian ballet dancer Alexander Godunov who makes great acting debut as Book’s romantic rival from within Amish community.

Witness is very good film, but not truly great. This could be attributed to slight problems with pacing, but also due to some unfortunate choices in depicting romantic subplot. Unlike sweet and realistic scene in which Book gets carried away while listening to pop song "Wonderful World" and starts dancing with Rachel, later scene in which Rachel bares her breast in order to offer herself to Book looks too exploitative. But the worst element of the film is weak and sometimes annoying musical score by Maurice Jarre. Despite these flaws, Witness deserves recommendation even for those viewers that aren’t too interested in learning about the Amish.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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