There are two wonderful ideas behind Witness. One is for a thriller in which a boy named Samuel (Lukas Haas) travelling with his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), witnesses the throat-slitting murder of an undercover policeman in the men’s room of a Philadelphia railway station. The boy identifies another officer as the killer to the detective in charge of the case, John Book (Harrison Ford). What keeps the thriller boiling is Book’s dual realization, that the deadly corruption runs all the way to the top of the police department—and that knowing that, he must go into hiding with the boy. The other wonderful idea in Witness is to portray the boy and his mother as Amish people from Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County so that Book’s secretive entry into their pacifist world becomes a fascinating, and often comic, study of the differences between two cultures—one of them up to the minute, the other stranded in time. To add extra tension, the detective and the Amish woman fall in love with each other.
Director Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, Gallipoli) handles both those stories with intelligence and verve, but the two narratives never fuse quite as sensationally as they should have done. Except for the film’s first half-hour, the action lacks the first-rate thriller’s sense of a tightening vise. And
while Book is hiding among the Amish, the movie’s dramatic pace slackens and the audience knows, in an almost complacent way, that the killers will eventually go after Book and the boy.
Still, the scenes among the Amish form a lovely centre to a film framed by sharp, expertly cut edges. Ford, so gratuitously engaging in the Star Wars sagas and the Indiana Jones serials, is less anxious to please here. His bef uddlement and embarrassment among often dour, hard-working people is nicely, effortlessly played. The Amish, particularly old Eli (Jan Rubes), believe in his righteousness on pure faith, and the hardened Book himself comes to understand and accept their pacifist point of view. But what is most effective in Witness is the unrequited love story of Book and Rachel. The lovers’ inability to express themselves, which they so desperately want to do, comes to define the true separation of sensibilities in the film.
Weir seems incapable of making a bad or uninteresting movie, and in Witness he has composed startling images, often in tranquil long shots, which evoke the Amish way of life. The film also has a splendid musical score, by Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia), who mixes both the old and the new to poignant effect. But in the end, Witness remains two movies, both artfully crafted and as watchable as the sunset—except that, in this case, less would have been more.
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