That Wicked Witchcraft

NICHOLAS HYTNER'S passionate movie version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible gets your blood boiling, which is just what it's meant to do. Miller has revised his venerable opus, quickening its rhythms for the screen, but what works is what's always worked when this play is well produced: you feel pity, horror, moral outrage. For in the Salem witch hunts of 1692, Miller, in 1953, found a metaphor that seems to resonate endlessly. We know it was the McCarthy-era witch hunts that inspired the play, but today's audience need know nothing about those Red-baiting days to connect to the communal hysteria, the paranoia, the totalitarian illogic "The Crucible" depicts. Contemporary analogies readily come to mind: the McMartin child-abuse case; the unyielding proclamations of the fundamentalist right; campus P.C. thinking run amok. "The Crucible" is never in danger of seeming untimely.

The flash point of the drama is sexual jealousy. Rejected by her lover, John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), teenage Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) gathers her girlfriends in the woods, where they dance libidinously and Abigail drinks a potion to kill Proctor's wife. When their ritual is discovered by a local reverend, the madness begins. The Devil is obviously afoot in Salem. Accusations fly, an investigation commences and the community is torn apart. Caught in the middle is Proctor, the flawed man of conscience, who is faced with a wracking choice: does he save his neck with a lie or sacrifice his life for the truth?

Hytner, the accomplished English stage director whose first film was "The Madness of King George," revs up the emotional pitch from the out-set. The theatricality of the accused girls' demonic possession at first seems over the top. But perhaps tha t's the point: they are performing for the court, which will spare them only if they confess to the sins they didn't commit. Hytner's stars can hardly be faulted. Day-Lewis and Ryder slip powerfully into their 17th-century skins. Paul Scofield is juicily effective as the stern Judge Danforth, whose religious sincerity in leading the investigation traps him in a monstrous blindness. Joan Allen is subtly poignant as Proctor's wife, a chilly woman struggling to regain her husband's affections.

The one thing that Miller's eloquent play is not really about is Puritan Salem itself. The author has little curiousity about what made these settlers the way they were, what role the church played in binding them together. Miller's strength, and his weakness, has always been his tendency to see things in black and white, which is what makes "The Crucible" moving, and also suspect. I recommend Hytner's movie highly, but a part of me resists a work that makes the audience feel as noble in our moral certainty as the characters it invites us to deplore. Some part of its power seems borrowed from the thing it hates.