Peter Weir is a powerful visual director who is still at home with words. The scripts of his films, while well written and literate, are merely the skeleton on which he hangs images to flesh out his vision. None the less, the script is of importance to Weir. This dichotomy bothers some people. Visualists dismiss him as being too pat and literate, while traditionalists distrust stories told more through pictures than words. It doesn't bother me one bit. In fact, I'm impressed by directors who can produce films that bridge the gap between words and pictures. After all, ever since The Jazz Singer, that's been the game.
Weir's inclinations are more towards the visual, but he has the discipline to avoid excesses by rooting his movies in strong scripts which ultimately rely on the word. Witness is a fine example of Weir's approach. The story concerns John Book, a Philadelphia policeman who is faced with the murder of another cop. He has one witness: an Amish boy. Unluckily, the murderer is himself a policeman, so the hero must flee with the boy to the relative safety of Amish country, where they can hide. Gradually, Book and the Amish boy's mother fall in love, an impossible love because of the differences between their lives. I can picture what Roger Corman would do with this story, or, for that matter, how it would play as a TV movie. What's interesting about this film is not the story, which is, let's face it, a gimmick, but what Weir does with it.
Despite the rather mechanical nature of the plot, the script is good. Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley have drawn several excellent characters and make the plot move in an acceptable, plausible manner. Moreover, they are true to their characters. They don't make them do things which are against their natures. Fidelity is central to characterization, and Wallace and Kelley are faithful.
Just how many of the visuals in a film come from the screenwriters and how many from the director is impossible to say without having read the script in several stages and observed the shooting. Keeping this in mind, I would venture a guess that most of the shots and visual touchs in Witness that really impressed me are Weir's. His past films (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli, and The Year of Living Dangerously) all bear the same marks. One of Weir's strongest points is his talent for visual metaphor. Without any character saying a word, Weir can communicate complicated thoughts and emotions. Most directors don't do this very well; some don't even realize it can be done. Weir's metaphors seem inevitable and hence, effortless. Art often appears effortless, especially in the hands of masters, but rarely is.
Weir's head isn't in the clouds, concentrating just on pretty pictures and clever images. He is a complete director. Witness's pace is well chosen. The story never becomes lost in irrelevancies, because Weir is able to concentrate on the essence of the plot. Action sequences are both clear and exciting. In particular, Weir works well with the performers.
There's not a bad performance in Witness, and there are several very good ones. Harrison Ford, as John Book, deserves particular praise. Ford's post-Star Wars films were very weak, but since Raiders of the Lost Ark, he has found his center as an actor. Now he is secure in his talent, which is akin to that of Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. Ford doesn't have tremendous range, but he does have tremendous charm, which is even rarer. Ford is a movie star in the old style, one of the few left. He's almost impossible not to like. Beyond his immense likability, Ford has enough ability to show us Book's deeper feelings; I think that this additional acting talent, modest by the standards of more protean actors such as Olivier and De Niro, is what separted the great stars of the thirties and forties from the merely beautiful and charming, and Ford has it.
Kelly McGillis is beautiful, chaste, and yet seductive as the widowed Amish mother. She's less ethereal, more real than she was in Reuben, Reuben, which is appropriate, as this character is less of a dream figure than a very real woman. Little imagination is necessary to see why the detective falls for her, despite the fact that her religion is a nearly impenetrable barrier between them. She also makes a believable mother for Lukas Haas, the boy who witnesses the murder. Haas is perfectly believable as an Amish boy, a boy brought up in a tradition very different from ours. This must have been a tremendous challenge for such a young actor, and Haas carries it off well. Alexander Godunov is also fine as an Amish farmer in love with McGillis.
Maurice Jarre's score is worthy of particular note. Jarre hardly deserved his Acadamy award nomination for A Passage to India, as that score was an inappropriate self-plagiarization of his score from Ryan's Daughter. His score for Witness, however, is excellent, symphonic in places, electronic almost in emulation of Tangerine Dream in others. As a score should, it reinforces the themes and emotions of the film, and is very good music in its own right.
As a detective movie, Witness is perhaps not a success. Any mystery about the murder is dispelled early, between the first half hour and the last fifteen minutes there is little action, and the central question as to whether the killers will find Book and the boy is not treated as a matter for suspense. Witness works very well, though, as a confrontation between two different life styles and as a love story. The real suspense concerns whether Ford and McGillis will wind up together, and what they will have to sacrifice for their love. Since detective stories are so easy to come by, I have no regrets that Weir didn't play it for action rather than emotion. Witness is decidedly not the TV movie version of this story, nor even the feature film expansion of the TV version, as too many films today are. Witness has been filtered through the mind of an artist, not churned out by a celluloid molding machine.
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