Witness Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 2 DVD release of Witness

Of all the Australian directors who came to prominence in the Seventies and then moved to the US, Peter Weir has managed the smoothest transition. Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong and Phillip Noyce have all, to some degree or another, suppressed their individuality (Noyce is the saddest case: he’s probably the most commercially successful of the lot, but there’s little evidence of the quirky talent that he once showed in films like Newsfront), while Mad Max creator George Miller – who should in many ways have fitted right in – loathed Hollywood so much that he gave up directing for several years.

By contrast, for all the range of Weir’s US output (after Witness he would make The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, Green Card, Fearless and The Truman Show), a distinctive directorial vision is always clearly visible. He takes generic plots and uses them as a framework on which to hang his mystical and anthropological interests, and if the blend doesn’t always work – and I don’t think he quite brings it off in Witness – it does at least mean that his work is never less than intriguing and, at its best, flat-out stunning (albeit often underrated: both The Mosquito Coast and the all too aptly titled Fearless are far more intriguing films than their disappointing critical and box-office reception hinted at).

Witness was Weir’s first American film, though it often feels uneasily like two films bolted together: a violent Hitchcockian suspense thriller and a documentary about the Amish people of Pennsylvania and their peculiar way of life (effectively, they shun modern technology and till the land much as their forefathers did centuries earlier).

The initial focus is on young Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas), an Amish boy making his first ever trip to the big city with his recently widowed mother (Kelly McGillis). Stranded at Philadelphia station for three hours due to a delay (never specified: probably leaves on the line given the general autumnal feel that suffuses the entire film), Samuel goes to answer a call of nature – and witnesses a particularly nasty and brutal murder.

Worse, he’s the only witness – which means that he is plunged straight to the heart of the police investigation, conducted by Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who quickly discovers that the murder goes right to the heart of the Philadelphia police authority. After a run-in with one of the killers, Book is shot, and goes on the run, hiding out in the heart of the Amish community while he recovers.

Up to this point Witness has been a pacy, exciting, suspenseful thriller, expertly handled in all departments. But when Book starts living with the Amish, it pretty much stops dead – early scenes with him on the phone to his partner suggest involving the press or the FBI, but these are never followed up, and Book seems to lose all interest in the investigation, despite the fact that both his and Samuel’s lives are in peril.

Instead, he learns the ways of the Amish, milking cows at 4.30am, helping the locals raise a new barn and discovering the joys of carpentry (not much acting involved here, because of course Harrison Ford used to be a real carpenter when he was a struggling acting in the Seventies!) – and, inevitably, falling in love with Rachel.

I think part of the problem with these scenes is that Weir is altogether too respectful of the Amish and their way of life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in principle – if Witness was a documentary, this would be more than acceptable – but it does mean that this whole middle section of the film is dramatically inert, as the passivity of the Amish (just about the worst punishment they can mete out is to threaten a mass shunning) means that they have little to do but stand in the background looking faintly disapproving at what they see as Book’s excesses (having the temerity to dance to music, owning a gun, and so on).

It’s a classic culture-clash scenario but without much of a clash: Rachel even has a boyfriend already (Alexander Godunov), but he’s far too polite and well-mannered to do anything about his potential rival. There’s a rather queasy scene later on in which Book defends the Amish from a gang of yobs where I couldn’t help wondering what point was being made: is Book saying that the Amish are wrong and that violence is really the solution to everything? And do the film-makers endorse this, since it’s presented pretty much uncritically?

There is a dramatic reason for this scene, though, in that it alerts the local police to the fact that there’s a stranger in the midst of the Amish, which tells the killers where to come and find him, thus leading to a third act that reintroduces the violent suspense of the opening – but this is somewhat perfunctory: it’s almost as though Weir has lost interest in the plot and just wants to get it over with and get back to the Amish.

Still, the film is watchable enough, and Weir is well served by his collaborators – fellow Australian John Seale gives the images a burnished glow while Maurice Jarre contributes an entirely electronic score that may seem jarring on paper but works surprisingly well in context: because it’s so utterly unlike what the Amish would approve of (as far as I can see, Amish music is strictly male voice choirs, and not too much of that) that it adds a certain amount of tension in scenes where there otherwise isn’t much.

And all the performances are excellent (in fact, it’s a pity Lukas Haas is given so little to do after the opening scene: he’s more than capable of carrying the first fifteen minutes on his own), though it’s a little jarring seeing Danny Glover as the nastiest of the bad guys – I last saw Witness before the Lethal Weapon films shot him to stardom!

The DVD transfer is fine for the most part – it’s anamorphic and framed at 1.78:1, and the original print is generally in very good condition: there are a few spots and scratches, but they’re never distracting. The daylit scenes come across very well indeed, but the picture gets very grainy when light levels fall, and the encoding isn’t too comfortable with this: often the grain freezes momentarily in a rather artificial fashion. This never seriously affects enjoyment, but I think more could have been done to minimise this.

The sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, though for the most part it doesn’t sound that different from the original Dolby Surround – a thunderstorm sequence was the only time I noticed distinct rear channel separation. But it’s not the sort of film that really needs an elaborate multi-channel soundtrack, and it comes across very well indeed, especially the music, which is admirably crisp and clear. There are 17 chapter stops.

There are just two extras – the original theatrical trailer (anamorphic, but very dark and murky), which makes the film look much more violent and suspenseful than it actually is, and a seven-minute interview with Peter Weir in which he discusses key sequences (illustrated with clips). I’d have liked this to go on rather longer – Weir is a lively and intelligent commentator on his own work, and I think a commentary might have helped the film enormously.

I should in all fairness note that Witness was a huge critical and commercial success and garnered eight Oscar nominations, so clearly not everyone feels the same way about it that I do! But it does seem to me, and not just with the benefit of hindsight, to be one of his weakest American films: the work of a talented and original director who hadn’t quite mastered the knack of playing the Hollywood system at its own game.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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