New England, 1630. William (Ralph Ineson) is so pious he’s even managed to incur the wrath of the Puritan community in which he and his family reside and finds himself summarily banished. Undeterred, he packs up his wife and five children into a rickety wooden cart and heads off into the wilderness, eventually arriving at a remote plot of land bordering a forest where he sets up home. Before anyone can say, ‘bad idea,’ the family’s youngest son, a baby, disappears and since he was under the care of eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), she is largely held responsible. The family assume a wolf has taken her but the audience has already witnessed the baby’s rather grisly demise, so we know that there’s something very unpleasant lurking in the undergrowth, something decidedly witch-shaped. There’s also ‘Black Philip,’ a he-goat, who definitely knows rather more than any ordinary goat should.
Writer/director Robert Eggar’s low-budget tale sets itself some awkward elements to overcome. For one thing, the dialogue is rendered in authentic Olde English, with lashings of thees and thous and while this is probably more accurate than having the characters speak in a more contemporary way (as Arthur Miller did, in The Crucible, the masterpiece to which this story will inevitably be compared) it does make for difficult viewing, as does the funereal pace at which much of the action unfolds. Though the film successfully creates an atmosphere of steadily mounting dread, it’s never in the least bit scary. Ultimately, this seems to be all about the perils of religion. Poor William is so intent on begging God’s forgiveness for every little misdemeanour, he rather overlooks the bigger picture, until of course it all goes horribly pear-shaped – the eldest son encounters something worrying in the forest, the remaining kids start having fits and their mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie) finds herself breast-feeding a crow. And the inevitable question remains; is Thomasin as innocent as she seems to believe she is?
The Witch has arrived garlanded with acclaim and to be fair, it’s a creditable full length debut by Eggars, but it is at its strongest when (like The Crucible) it is ambiguous. Scenes that confirm our worst fears rather seem to undermine the film’s creepy intentions. So while I would encourage anyone to go and see this, to judge for themselves, I have to confess to being a little disappointed with the end product.