Modern Classic Film Review: Witness

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“They’re Amish!”

(Witness, Peter Weir, US, 1985, 112 minutes)

A young boy, having witnessed a grisly murder in a train station bathroom, must help police to find the killer; his widowed mother, lonely and grieving, catches the eye of the cop assigned to the case and a brief emotional affair ensues. So far, so standard-romantic-thriller. However, Weir’s film comes with one ground-breaking twist: the young boy, and his mother, are Amish.

In 2011, where heightened cultural awareness dictates much of our media, that probably doesn’t seem too ground-breaking. But in 1985, Witness provided the first portrayal of an Amish community in mainstream cinema, and in the intervening 26 years few other movies have tackled this theme with the same degree of authority or respect.  The famous “ice cream scene”, where a thuggish daytripper visiting the Amish community cruelly taunts one of its members by smearing ice cream on his face, was as culturally illuminating as the scenes depicting Amish construction work and attitudes to medicine.

None of this would matter, of course, if Witness was not, first and foremost, a taut and gripping thriller that engages from start to finish. William Kelley’s famously well-structured script, and Weir’s sensitive direction, invites the audience to recognise universal themes that cross any cultural divide: it is a story of love, loneliness, grief and betrayal. The forbidden romance that blossoms between bachelor cop John Book (Harrison Ford) and widowed mother Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) is just one of several powerfully evoked relationships throughout the film: between Book and his partner Carter (Brent Jennings); between Rachel and her father Eli (Jan Rubes); and between Book and Rachel’s eight-year-old son Samuel (a shamelessly cute Lukas Haas), the witness of the title. This, the bond that develops between the lonely cop and the fatherless child, is the one that emerges as the most touching of the entire story, threatening even to eclipse the headline romance.

Such persistent recourse to heartstring-pulling, however, does mean that as a thriller, Witness occasionally veers off-balance.  Danny Glover is woefully wasted as the corrupt policeman and resident baddie, and the plotline to explain his machinations – a drug conspiracy perpetrated by bent cops – is so thin as to be of virtually no importance. As a MacGuffin it does little more than serve its purpose, making way for the real action of the film.

And that, really, is why Witness is so successful, and why it manages to overcome whatever minor problems that it suffers. It is never held up by the typical minutiae of its convoluted counterparts in the thriller canon; and it explores a facet of American culture that no film had ever previously visited in equal depth. In more than a quarter of a century it may have lost some of this sheen that made it so startlingly fresh; but it has certainly lost none of its power to move and to inspire.

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