Proctor and Ramble

The cinematic version of The Crucible is soap opera with a message

Of course, Proctor is presented as just about the only hale fellow in all of Salem. In fact, just to be on the safe side, Salem seems bereft of boys too. It's a wonder that Proctor, striding about open-shirted and fashionably unshaven, has only Abigail on his tail. Day-Lewis acts as if he hasn't quite shaken off The Last of the Mohicans, but at least he's not musty. He knows how to play a character in period and still keep him vibrant. (His teeth are browned and rottenish, though--a concession to period accuracy I could have lived without.)

Winona Ryder fits less successfully into period, and her role never transcends vengeful vixenhood. Still, she brings something extra to Abigail's hurt--a frenzied bewilderment--that isn't on the page. You believe the damages this girl is capable of.

Joan Allen is magnificent as Elizabeth. It's tough playing a saint, but Allen gives this one so many layers of hurt and pride that you kind of wish the movie had been all about her. Allen inhabits her characters so thoroughly she seems to have lived her whole life in each of them. In Nixon, she transformed Pat Nixon into an almost tragic figure. In The Crucible, the tragedy on view in Salem is best reflected in her resigned, beseeching eyes.

The other actors--including Paul Scofield as the hanging judge, Danforth; George Gaynes as Danforth's less austere cohort, Sewall; Rob Campbell as Reverend Hale, the cleric who slowly awakens to reason; Peter Vaughan as the magnificently pigheaded farmer Gilles Corey; and Bruce Davison--also do extremely well trying to inhabit their roles fully, even though Miller doesn't give them much room to shimmy.

Miller wrote several years after the play's premiere that he thought he erred in not making the judges even more villainous. Get thee behind me, Satan! What The Crucible needs more of--and what these actors try to provide--is a greater sense of human ambiguity. But if The Crucible were richer, it wouldn't be The Crucible, would it?

The Crucible. Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen, Paul Scofield, George Gaynes, Bruce Davison, Rob Campbell, Peter Vaughan. Written by Arthur Miller. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

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