Monday, March 7, 2016

Review: The VVitch: A New England Folktale


Last Saturday, my wife and I went to see The Witch (stylized as The VVitch and titled onscreen with the subtitle A New England Folktale). We went to the late night showing, which seemed appropriate given the subject matter. The film starts with the excommunication of a farmer, William, from a 17th century Puritan plantation in New England. He leaves along with his family—wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas—due to the crime of “prideful conceit.” He seems to have been doing his own interpreting and preaching of scripture in a way that the authorities disagreed with. As a result, the family is exiled. They settle on a piece of land by the edge of a large forest to start their new life. Several months later, they've built a house and farm and Katherine has given birth to her fifth child, Samuel. Then things go very wrong for the family.

I don’t want to give away the twists and turns of the film. It’s not that the film attempts an M. Night Shyamalan kind of surprise ending, but I think the feel of the film will be conveyed best if the ending is unknown and the events are allowed to unfold without foreknowledge. Not surprisingly in a film called, The Witch, there are elements of the supernatural. But the viewer is, to an extent, kept guessing as to what is really going on in the story. As events progress, things go wrong, fear and paranoia set in and this is all filtered through the viewpoint of 17th century Puritans. The film does an excellent job of putting the audience into the mindset of the family. The protagonist is the eldest child, Thomasin, and we predominantly see the events of the film through her view point. The isolation of the family farm parallel’s Thomasin’s growing isolation from her family.

Costumes, architecture, and such seem accurate. The matchlock musket fits the 1630 nominal time period. Though sadly, the match is not used correctly. When we see the match carried by Caleb it appears unlit, at least no smoke seems to be rising from it and the end does not glow. Nor do we see Caleb or his father make any attempt to blow on the match to keep it lit. Only once the match is placed in the gunlock and fired does it finally seem to be lit. It’s a bit of a minor quibble, I suppose, but the Spanish film [i]Alatriste[/i] and the BBC TV series [i]The Musketeers[/i] both do a better job showing how matches worked and I was hoping to see that level of accuracy.

It was interesting to see how well off the family was in a material sense. Even the children all had shoes, their clothes were well made, and jackets had many buttons. Not being a historian, I can’t speak to how realistic that was for average Puritan colonists, but it does seem in keeping with what I know of the wealth and social class for Puritans in general in that period and with the lists of belongings I’ve seen from a few historical sources for the Puritan colonists.

If one is interested in the 17th century, especially if one is interested in Colonial America, Puritans, or contemporary views on witchcraft, this is a movie well worth seeing. It's also a compelling tale told from the point of view of a young Puritan girl who is not Hester Prynne. 

The Good:

  • The film is historically accurate with the sort of clothing one sees in period recreationists and Colonial Williamsburg not cheap knock offs from a theatrical prop rack.
  • The film does a fabulous job of conveying the world view and attitude of Colonial Puritans and depicting their view as real in the film.
  • The acting is quite good.
  • The film depicts the isolation of a single family and a lonely daughter in the period extremely well.

The Bad:

  • The film never really answers the question of what was really going on. It is, as the subtitle says, A New England Folktale, and if you want more of an explanation for who did what, to whom, and how and why, you will be disappointed on that account.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars.

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