Wednesday 31 August 2022

Movie Review: Witness (1985)

A romance and crime drama, Witness soulfully explores a quiet way of life by combining a slow-burning love affair with a sketched-in police corruption case.

Recently widowed Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) is a member of the Amish community near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. While on a trip to Philadelphia, her eight-year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) is the only witness to an undercover cop's murder in a train station washroom. Philadelphia Police Detective John Book (Harrison Ford) investigates and uncovers internal corruption involving Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer) and Lieutenant James McFee (Danny Glover). 

Book is shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. He flees to Lancaster, where Rachel nurses him back to health and gradually they fall in love. Amish elder and Rachel's father-in-law Eli (Jan RubeŇ°) disapproves of the romance, while local Amish man Daniel (Alexander Godunov) also has his eyes set on Rachel. Meanwhile, Schaeffer and McFee close in, eager to eliminate the witness.

The setting-the-stage opening sequence is a beautiful reveal of Amish traditions, and the opening murder drips with tension and hints at Samuel's resourcefulness. But really, the crime-and-corruption story within Witness is the equivalent of narrative bookends, and receives about as much serious attention as trinkets on a dusty shelf. Director Peter Weir is dismissive in his handling of police procedures: John Book stuffs young Samuel and his mom in a police car and exposes them at close quarters to a potential suspect; then unceremoniously stashes mother and child at his sister's house.

Weir is in a hurry to get to the story's core, which is Book's recuperation in the heart of Amish country. Here John Seale's wistful cinematography captures idyllic sun-kissed hills as a backdrop to a seemingly forbidden romance between the urbane cop and the Amish widow. The movie's pace drops to match the longing stares and horse-and-buggy aesthetics of a community humbly choosing to freeze time somewhere in the 1800s. The middle act culminates in a rousing raise-the-barn sequence, boisterous dancing replaced by respectful appreciation for hard labour.

The tender central romance works beautifully because Harrison Ford yields to his vulnerable side, and Kelly McGillis conveys a thousand words with one glance; their chemistry builds to a respectable simmer. Jan RubeŇ° as the crusty Eli keeps a watchful eye on the lovers, while Lukas Haas as the clever Samuel disappears for a long stretch while the adults engage in adult activity.

Towards the end Weir remembers there is a crime story to wrap up, and the climax is a cobbled together shotgun fight at the Amish corral. Witness knows the real sparks only fly when the guns fall quiet and hormones run riot.

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