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MovieMike's Movie Reviews (83)

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Witness (1985) 
30 Years Old & Still Watchable
3.5/4 stars

The real measure of a film should be how it stands the test of time. Of course you cannot apply this metric to a new or very recent film; but maybe another way to quantify this would be to judge how many times you would re-watch the film. It’s hard to believe ‘Witness’ is 30 years old, but it certainly still manages to evoke the same reactions and feelings as it did in 1985.
Rachel Lapp (played by Kelly McGillis) is a young Amish woman who has just lost her husband. After the funeral, she starts a journey with her son, Samuel (Lucas Haas), to visit a sister. At a train stop in Philadelphia, Samuel inadvertently witnesses the murder of a policeman. Harrison Ford appears as Detective John Book, who is assigned to the case. After Book is wounded by one of his own fellow detectives, he realizes that there is a conspiracy within his own department and concludes the boy is not safe in the city. Without informing anyone, he takes them back to their Amish farm to lay low until he can figure out how to deal with the corruption that he’s uncovered.
Fresh off his successes with ‘Gallipoli’ (1981) and ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ (1982), Director Peter Weir delivers a film that shows the collision of these two very different worlds in a very subtle way. The screenplay by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelly does an excellent job of juxtaposing Book’s gritty metropolitan background with the simple and plain lifestyle of the Amish world he suddenly finds himself immersed in. The script also manages to display this lifestyle without seeming stereotypical.
The performance by Ford is one of my favorites in his body of work. He deftly evolves his character as the slowly developing attraction he has for Rachel becomes obvious. He also subtly works to gain the acceptance of the Amish community as an ‘Englishman’ outsider. I can’t believe Kelly McGillis didn’t receive at least an Academy Award nomination for her work in this (she did receive a BAFTA award for Best Actress). She gives that rare performance where the character gives us more feeling and emotion with her expressions than any spoken word. The part where she and Book ‘say’ goodbye without her uttering a sound is especially moving.
This film still looks good, most likely because the Amish way of life is one that mostly seems frozen in time – and the work of Cinematographer, John Seale (‘Rain Man’, ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, ‘Mad Max – Fury Road’ among many others). Weir’s direction also helps evoke the contradictions of these two societies in nearly every scene. Nothing feels forced here and the viewer becomes truly invested in these characters. I think my only complaint with the film, is that I would have loved to see more long-shots of the Amish countryside. But again, credit Director Weir with delivering a compact, to-the-point film that has no drawn out scenes, and no parts where you might have found yourself looking at your watch and wondering when this would be over. 30 years on, it is still so watchable.


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