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Friday, December 20, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Miller's Crossing -- `Crucible' Has Been Turned Into A Two-Fisted Moral Melodrama

Seattle Times Theater Critic

------------ Movie review ------------

XX 1/2 "The Crucible," with Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen, Paul Scofield. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Screenplay by Arthur Miller, based on his play. Guild 45th. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of intense depiction of the Salem witch trials.

More than four decades after Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" opened on Broadway, this very familiar American drama is finally a big-screen American film.

And is the long-awaited, high-budget cinema version the ultimate realization of Miller's McCarthy Era parable, set in a Puritan hamlet obsessed with witchcraft?

Unfortunately not. Through the efforts of director Nicholas Hytner, screenwriter Miller, and a big-league cast headed by Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, "The Crucible" emerges as an earnest, atmospheric period piece, sporadically stirring enough to keep hold of an audience's attention.

However, Hytner's bombastic pacing and steamroller approach turn the story into a two-fisted moral melodrama, about a remote time and emblematic characters. And with Day-Lewis playing the lead role as a paragon of smoldering virility, rather than as a man struggling with fierce inner demons, there's not much room left for ambiguity and psychological complexity, and precious little immediate political relevance.

Miller's script pares down the dialogue and "opens up" the action right from the first scene, when a pack of nubile adolescent girls (led by Ryder's bossy Abigail Williams) secretly cavorts in the misty woodlands of 17th-century Salem.

Harmless mischief

Their impromptu dawn revels, encouraged by a Caribbean slave, Tituba (a memorable cameo by Charlayne Woodard), is just a case of repressed teens venting hormonal frustrations. In this rock-ribbed New England town, however, a minister's discovery of the harmless mischief triggers a chain of fateful events: hysterical comas, false accusations of sorcery, show trials (conducted with prissy zeal by Paul Scofield's arrogant Judge Danforth), and, finally, the execution of 19 innocent citizens.

The chief accuser is Abigail, whose lethal finger-pointing is supposedly motivated by lust for her former lover, the handsome farmer John Proctor (Day-Lewis), and her hatred of Proctor's frail wife, Elizabeth (Joan Allen).

As the town's hysterical scapegoating mounts, the Proctors fall under suspicion, too. In the end, it all comes down to John's crisis of conscience: Should he save his neck by confessing "sins" he didn't commit, or keep his integrity and hang from the gallows? It is a no-win choice, pounded home with soupy background music and teary gallantry, when a restrained tone could have been far more compelling.

Shot on unspoiled Goat Island off Massachusetts, Andrew Dunn's photography vividly evokes coastal New England's harsh beauty. And in the rough-hewn wood dwellings, the homespun clothes and the spartan church, designer Lilly Kilvert and costumer Bob Crowley convey the rugged simplicity of Puritan life.

Yet the film gives us very little sense of the society's complex social and religious dynamic. Petty rivalries that fueled the actual 1692 witch hunts are glimpsed. But the townspeople are framed mainly in mob terms - especially that gaggle of wailing, racing teen girls.

More emphasis on some intriguing minor figures - the outsider Tituba, wise Rebecca Nurse (Frances Conroy), slippery Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison), and Proctor's more vindictive neighbors - might have enriched the narrative, and shed more light on how a community loses civility and cohesion.

Romance dominates

Instead the unconvincing romantic triangle dominates. And only Allen, as the long-suffering yet luminous Elizabeth, delivers an emotional charge.

Reducing John Proctor's dialogue, and having Day-Lewis play him as an ultra-virile hunk, turns the play's most ambivalent, searching figure into the film's poster boy for sexy virtue. As for Ryder's Abigail, it no longer washes to blame everything on this "harlot" youth - who, after all, was seduced then rejected by an older man. Her stock villainy now seems dubious indeed.

In the end, the movie reaffirms the importance of standing up for truth, and not betraying one's friends - the two most obvious morals at hand, though behavior no one could take for granted during the Communist-baiting "witch hunts" of the 1950s that Miller lived through. Too bad, though, that "The Crucible" fails to probe deeper into the sexual, religious, and political conditions that can give false accusations so much power - even today.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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