Witness – Film Review

witnessWonderful Peter Weir film starring Harrison Ford that’s part thriller, part fish-out-of-water story about culture clash and part romance. While the thriller element is just okay if slickly made, it’s really there to explore an unusual setting and a growing connection between a man and a woman from two very different worlds. The only bad thing I could say about it is the dated 80s soundtrack, but it’s a small nitpick.

Most of the story takes place in the Amish settlement in Pennsylvania, a self-sufficient world that seems to be frozen in time, with its commitment to a rural lifestyle and avoidance of electricity and modern clothes, among other things. At the start of the movie, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), a young Amish widow, takes a train with her young son for a family visit. While their train is delayed in Philadelphia, the boy witnesses a brutal murder in the station’s bathroom and manages to avoid the killer. Through a chain of events that put their lives in mortal danger, Rachel and her son escape back to the Amish country with John Book (Harrison Ford), the tough big city detective assigned to the case.

The romance between Rachel and John is the heart of the movie, and really involves three characters: John, Rachel, and the palpable sexual tension between them. I’m a big fan of “love each other, can’t be together” romances and here it’s done exceptionally well. There’s a big kiss scene at one point but most of the emotion is conveyed through the glances, gestures, and the intense yearning chemistry. Both characters are grown-ups with responsibilities and place in the world, keenly aware that the cultural gulf between them can’t be crossed, and I admired the movie’s reluctance to go into full-on melodrama (which by the way I totally love too, but it would have been at odds with this film’s more subtle mood). For instance, early on it introduces a third-wheel Amish guy who is clearly sweet on Rachel, and in another movie this would have led to a love triangle, rivalry, jealousy etc., but here it’s pretty much sidestepped. The nature of Rachel and John’s relationship is of course a source of gossip and tension in the community, but again, it’s not really overblown.

The ways of the Amish are likewise well-observed; one might say that the film portrays them in a rather golden light, highlighting the purity, non-violence and the lovely communal spirit of their lives, but at least it also does give you an idea what price one might pay for breaking the rules and going against the grain. Amish shunning sounds intense, man.

Random spotting: fresh-faced Viggo Mortensen in the barn-building scene. Also, the young boy with the slightly strange, elvish features who plays Rachel’s son looked naggingly familiar; I realised later that the same actor played the crime boss in Brick which I’ve watched just recently. Funny how some people don’t change all that much from childhood to adulthood.

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