LIFF29 - The Witch - Cinema Review

'Eggers' film is consistently unfolded with a thick layer of tension and uncertainty lingering just under the surface'.

To introduce The Witch as a horror film feels both overly simplistic and somewhat misleading. A more accurate description of the film is as a period drama with lingering, occasionally prominent supernatural elements. Going into writer and director Robert Eggers' feature debut anticipating straightforward horror is therefore a bit like going into a Jane Austen adaptation and expecting a rom-com.

That's not to say that there aren't elements of genuine horror within The Witch. Eggers punctuates his script with a handful of well-crafted, genuinely unnerving scenes. The earliest of which, occurring near the start of the opening act, is both gruesome and unsettling enough to confirm that the film's story is either one where witchcraft does exist, or where the characters believe in it so absolutely that it may as well do. The rest deliver uncanny haymakers at exactly the right moments, ensuring Eggers' film is consistently unfolded with a thick layer of tension and uncertainty lingering just under the surface.

Focusing The Witch almost entirely upon a single, isolated family is a bold decision by Eggers, but one which pays off remarkably well thanks to the performances achieved by his cast. Ralph Ineson as patriarch William delivers a performance of power and control, his thunderous, gravel-infused tones perfectly bringing to life the authentic 17th Century Puritanical language of Eggers' script. Whilst Kate Dickie as wife and mother Katherine is arguably given less of interest to do than Ineson, she too brings authenticity to her character and shines at the right moments.

Harvey Scrimshaw as eldest son Caleb delivers an impressive performance; a boy the verge of manhood crafted from just the right balance of unchecked bravery and juvenile uncertainty and confusion, as well as delivering key moments within some of the film's most unsettling scenes. Best of all, however, is Anya Taylor-Joy, the young actress commanding the screen throughout. As Thomasin, Taylor-Joy delivers a turn that takes in the maturity of a daughter forced into womanhood by geographical location and religious custom, and the genuine terror of a teenage girl who is watching her family fall apart through fear, paranoia and tragedy.

The Witch arrests your attention from very early on through Eggers' assured direction, his remarkable attention to detail in recreating 17th Century New England, and his patience in unfolding his story. The writer and director shrewdly embraces ambiguity until the very end, keeping the audience uncertain as to exactly what is causing the events befalling the family and how much of it can be attributed to the supernatural. Eggers crafts a film both chilling and atmospheric in its cinematic approach, but also palpably intimate in its focus on a single family about whom the filmmaker sincerely makes us care. Ironically for a historical drama, The Witch in many ways embodies an original and different approach to horror film-making that could bring both vitality and credibility back to a genre still too often found floundering in remakes and limp nostalgia for the past.

The 29th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 5th-19th November 2015 at venues around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House, Cottage Road Cinema and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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