The Witch

 

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A portrait of 1630s’ black magic and witchcraft proves exceptionally strong on atmosphere and period authenticity.

 

Witch, The

Bewitching: Anya Taylor-Joy

 

The witch is given precious little screen time in this deeply unsettling horror film, but her spell is all over it. The power of Robert Eggers’ directorial debut lies both in its authentic look and dialogue as well as in its economy, although its plotting is perhaps a little too rudimentary. Based on original journals, diaries and court transcripts from the sixteenth century, the film ploughs the same ground as The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter, while the bleak woods of northeastern Ontario (standing in for New England) recall the disquieting terrain of The Blair Witch Project.

 

Banished from their New England settlement for a misinterpretation of the New Testament, a Puritan family sets off into the wilderness to start a new life. With just a horse, goat and chicken, William (Ralph Ineson) has little to provide his wife and four children, but sows corn and builds a roof for them the best he can. The sheer privation of these devout Christians is convincingly evoked and provides a dramatic anchor for what is to come. Eggers certainly makes it look real. When William attempts to discharge his musket to kill a hare, it’s painfully apparent how cumbersome a weapon the gun was back then.

 

However, matters take a turn for the worse when the couple’s new baby disappears in the woods while the eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), was in charge of it. Distrust immediately follows grief and Thomasin is given little benefit of the doubt. But we, the audience, are left in no uncertainty as to the evil that resides close by. And so the ascent of gloom – and terror – builds, although the plotting proves as slight as the family’s creature comforts.

 

While the production design and costumes (made almost entirely from wool, linen and hemp), provide much of the film’s distinctiveness, the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy is extraordinary. She has a genuine screen presence and her nuanced English accent is faultless, which is all the more remarkable considering her first language is Spanish. Following this and her roles in Morgan, Barry, Split and Thoroughbred, her propensity for short film titles is obviously paying off (it may come as no surprise that her next films are the equally monosyllabic Marrowbone and Glass). Here, her Thomasin exhibits an otherworldliness that echoes the presence in the woods, while she is also equal parts poise and innocence.

 

As her parents, Ineson and Kate Dickie are also excellent, grappling with the arcane dialogue (Ineson: “Hold thy tongue, daughter mine”) with consummate ease. And throughout, the film retains its oppressive atmosphere and sense of dread.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson.

 

Dir Robert Eggers, Pro Rodrigo Teixeira, Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond and Jay Van Hoy, Screenplay Robert Eggers, Ph Jarin Blaschke, Pro Des Craig Lathrop, Ed Louise Ford, Music Mark Korven, Costumes Linda Muir.

 

Parts and Labor/RT Features/Rooks Nest Entertainment/Maiden Voyage Pictures/Mott Street Pictures/Code Red Productions/Scythia Films/Pulse Films/Special Projects-Universal Pictures.

92 mins. USA/UK/Canada/Brazil. 2015. Rel: 11 March 2016. Cert. 15.