Last night Betsy and I watched WITNESS with our daughter Kristin and son-in-law Jared in Maryland. Betsy often used this movie in her ESL classes to point out cultural differences, and I used it once or twice in my Cinema class. How did it hold up? As we know, most movies made in and about their time periods don't age too well. But WITNESS is a rare and worthy exception.
Filmed in 1985, WITNESS stars Harrison Ford as tough, principled Philadelphia cop John Book, who is drawn by accident into an Amish community. A young Amish boy is the only witness to a brutal knifing in a public bathroom. This scene creates suspense through the use of sharp editing and close-ups of the boy as he sees the assault. His near discovery by the killer is harrowing. The investigating officer John Book is forced to go into hiding in the Amish community to protect himself and the boy from corrupt police officials he wants to expose. The stark contrast between Book's ordinarily violent life and the calm peace of the Amish farmland provides the strongest part of the film. A hardened loner, Book finds himself falling in love with Samuel's mother Rachel (Kelley McGinnis) and the Amish ways. The soothing shots of golden wheat waving in the wind and the Amish men erecting a barn while the women prepare their meal are among the most beautiful in the film. But the quiet, breath-taking images of McGinnis standing in a door with golden light illuminating her face and her simple Amish dress are the most memorable in their allusions to the painter Vermeer. Of course, we see these images through Book's eyes, which makes them even more poignant.
Austrailian director Peter Weir has given this material grace and subtlety and a perfect cast, especially Lucas Haas as the boy Samuel. Those wide, wondering eyes see so much and lead us to see even more. Time to see WITNESS again.