Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch *** won the prestigious Sutherland Award at last year’s BFI London Film Festival.
The American director couldn’t be there himself but, at the prize giving gala, I sat on the film’s table with its British cast Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie and newcomer Anya Taylor Joy. I wrote about them and that fine evening here.
At that stage I hadn’t seen their movie, which was to my shame, because they’re all spectacularly good in it, admirably committed to speaking the film’s St James’ Bible-style English dialogue so that it never jars: “Hold fast to thine eyes”; “I love thee marvellous well..”
They play a family of puritans cast out, at the film’s beginning, from the plantation of pilgrims in 17th century New England. You get the feeling that Ineson’s father character William is just too puritanical even for these ascetic settlers.
He’s forced to set up shack with his wife and four children, plant corn and tend chickens and goats. Silly him, though, for building next to a deep dark wood.
The couple’s new baby Samuel promptly disappears while pretty daughter Thomasin (Taylor Joy) is playing peek-a-boo. Was it a wolf that took the bairn, or something more sinister?
Soon, suspicion and guilt and puritanical zeal envelop the isolated family. Done up like dolls, the little twins Mercy and Jonas skip and whisper and giggle in the creepiest of fashions, 10-year-old Caleb chastises himself with hellfire text and his “corrupt nature” (he has, after all, played on the Sabbath and looked at his older sister’s burgeoning cleavage) while mother and father consume themselves with prayer.
Thomasin, however, feels a power and a calling. She also talks to the family goat, Black Philip, who goes a bit skittish and menacing. “Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat?” glowers father to daughter.
Now, this is where I laughed. I might have been wrong in my response, but it just seems a very tough line to get away with. My reaction to horror is, indeed, quite often to laugh and maybe that was what was going on here. Whatever the case, I was aware my laugh (and that of one other critic) punctuated the otherwise rapt attention of the room.
The film goes on to follow Thomasin and Anya Taylor-Joy’s wide-eyed young face on a journey of inexorable self-discovery, in a climax that’s part Crucible but also part League of Gentlemen. I’ve never quite found the genre of horned beasts and baby sacrifice and cackling covens of witchery to my taste, even if this one’s firmly on the side of the devil and his temptations: “Would you like to live deliciously?” whispers something/someone to Thomasin as she disrobes.
The threat of female sexuality, original sin, violence and missionary zeal – all of this bubbles away in The Witch’s cauldron. I can’t deny Eggers has made a very assured debut here (some of the details are very smart indeed – such as the Native Americans we glimpse mixing in the settlement as the family’s cart wobbles by) and there will be great claims made for the film, as a horror, fairy tale or treatise on the fear of femininity – you know, all of the usual witchy stuff.
It didn’t haunt me or transport me quite as much as it clearly has some others. It’s good, though, and in Anya Taylor-Joy, it might just have found a new star.