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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Witness (1985)

PUBLISHED: 08:15 05 November 2017

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Peter Weir's character-driven thriller Witness.. Photo: Paramount

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Peter Weir's character-driven thriller Witness.. Photo: Paramount

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Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Lukas Haas in the character-driven thriller Witness, directed by Peter Weir. Photo: Paramount Lukas Haas in the character-driven thriller Witness, directed by Peter Weir. Photo: Paramount

Witness; dir: Peter Weir, Starring: Harrison Ford, Lukas Haas, Kelly McGillis, Danny Glover, Josef Summer, Alexander Godunov. Cert: 15; (1985)

In the mid-80s, this remarkable, atmospheric film was sold to the filmgoing public as a thriller – much in the same way that Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact, the latest instalment in the Dirty Harry series – but Witness was much more. It was a complex human drama, a moving character study which took a serious look at the role of religion in society and questioned if and when we should compromise our moral values – and all this was played out against the backdrop of a crime thriller.

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Peter Weir's character-driven thriller Witness.. Photo: Paramount Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Peter Weir's character-driven thriller Witness.. Photo: Paramount

Hollywood sold the stereotypical packaging, while director Peter Weir delivered a compelling story of love, desire and the ability to be brave, on many different levels, when the occasion arose.

Witness is a film which proves that you can use suspense and character development to keep the audience on the edge of its seat and when the action does explode on screen, your emotional investment in the characters raises the stakes to such a level, you are hoping that sheer force of will should ensure there is a happy ending.

This isn’t an empty film full of clichéd car chases and noisy gun-fights, in which entire armouries are used to dispatch one or two bad guys, instead this is a high-stakes game of poker, where the hero finds himself drawn into an impossible situation, not of his making, but has to put his life on the line if he is to protect those he has unwittingly placed in danger.

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Peter Weir's character-driven thriller Witness.. Photo: Paramount Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Peter Weir's character-driven thriller Witness.. Photo: Paramount

This is a slow-burn movie. It intrigues you and swiftly hooks you in the opening minutes of the film and rewards your emotional investment in the story with a spine-tingling dénouement.

Witness plays as a story out of time. The film opens on an Amish settlement in Pennsylvania where people still move around by horse and trap, modern conveniences like gas and electricity are rejected and they endeavour to live a self-sufficient life.

Their self-contained community is essentially cut off from the modern world and lives exactly as they did 200 years ago. Peter Weir offers a sympathetic portrait of a community which values communal living and tradition above all else.

Harrison Ford as John Book in the character-driven thriller Witness, directed by Peter Weir. Photo: Paramount Harrison Ford as John Book in the character-driven thriller Witness, directed by Peter Weir. Photo: Paramount

This safe world is compromised when a small Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses a murder in a railway station rest room. Harrison Ford, plays John Book, the world-weary detective assigned to the case, gets the boy accompanied by his recently widowed mother (Kelly McGillis), to view potential suspects in a police line-up and by leafing through books of mug-shots.

However, chance reveals that the suspects are closer to home and that colleagues within the police department may have something to do with the murder. These fears are crystallised when Book is ambushed and nearly killed and, although he is badly hurt, realises that the safest place for himself, mother and son is in the Amish community.

He manages to drive them home before collapsing from loss of blood. Despite their distrust of the outside world, the Amish elders rally round to care for Book because it is the right thing to do and they recognise the fact that he has placed his life in danger to protect Rachel, the widowed young mother and her son.

Once the trio arrive on the isolated Pennsylvania farm, the tone of the film changes. The claustrophobic camera angles and the dark, grimy colour palette is replaced by wide-open vistas, light, bright images, warm colours and a feeling of security.

Book is nursed back to health and finds himself settling into life in this formal but warm-hearted community. He also finds himself, perhaps for the first time, feeling at home here. Part of the reason for this is the fact that he is gradually falling in love with Rachel.

A slow dance in the barn lit by car headlights and a chance glimpse of her naked while washing cement their growing attachment. This brings another element of tension because as an Amish woman she cannot marry outside her community.

But, as this domestic drama builds, the realities of the outside world start to reimpose themselves on their idyllic existence as a stupid act of bravado by Book in town has revealed to his corrupt colleagues where he is hiding.

Peter Weir’s Witness is a rich, organic story told by a film-maker at the top of his game. It’s a thriller that focuses on character. It’s as close as you can get to a perfect film.

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