What happens when the only witness to a murder is a young boy who is seeing Philadelphia for the first time? What, then, if he is an Amish boy who knows nothing of the outside world and his mother doesn't want to get the young child involved? In the end, a nice murder mystery that focuses more on the process of keeping the only witness safe than on the perpetrators of the crime.
Much like the Amish themselves, this film takes its time in telling a story, preferring to see things through the awestruck eyes of a child rather than use an omniscient narrator. Samuel's experiences in the world of the "English" are the audience's guiding light through the film. We are amazed by a hot air balloon because he is. Reflexively we are horrified by a murder, something common in film because, to Samuel it was a new occurrence.
"Witness" violates a lot of the rules of the traditional murder mystery genre but does it in such a way as to heighten the tension. Our expectations are played against us to wonderful effect. As a result I was sucked into the narrative, wondering what would happen next.
A major part of the film's success comes from the acting of the three leads. Harrison Ford is magnificent as John Book, as straight-laced a cop as you'll ever find. He's strong and definitive yet has a great sense of empathy. There is a great interplay with Kelly McGillis' Rachael, Samuel's mother. Their back-and-forth banter is dynamic, creating a palpable tension. It is this tension that the inevitable romantic conversion is far more satisfying.
And what can be said about little Lukas Haas? His wide-eyed innocence and youthful curiosity is absolutely adorable. Because he is learning the ways of the Amish, he provides us with an in-road to understanding the lives of his people. The role may be simple, but the portrayal is not.
Much of the film is dedicated to Book learning to live among the Amish, to adapt to their ways; and they to him. I'm not sure who has the harder time in dealing. The film's main story never takes a back-seat to Book's adjustment. Director Peter Weir manages both tracks nicely, never forgoing one chronicle for another; never forgetting why Book is living among the Amish, even when he's interacting with Rachel's suitor.
The film's conclusion leaves a little to be desired. Its heavy reliance on action is a distinct counterpoint to the simple life Book had come to embrace, appreciate, and even enjoy. I don't know that I can think of a better way to wrap up the main narrative, and was satisfied by what was found.
I was afraid that this movie would mock the ways of the Amish; that it would call them simple and try to change them. While they are changed by their interactions with Book, it is obvious that the ways of the Amish were respected. Overall, the film is a wonderful look into the life of the Amish and their interactions with the outside world. The characters are the focus of this story; the film is richer because they are allowed to develop and grow into complex, rounded figures.
I truly enjoyed "Witness;" more than I thought I would and more than I enjoy the traditional murder mystery. Because the generic conventions were violated in favor of character, and the actors were given the chance to delve into their craft from a nonverbal perspective (particularly during the barn raising scene), the film is a different beast. It is a good and enjoyable film.
A little grain marks the 1.78:1 Anamorphic video transfer, as do a few artifacts from the original stock negative. Colors are muted, but because there is an occasional scene where the greens of the grass simply pop off the screen, I think it more a stylistic choice by the director and DP than a fault of the transfer. Blacks are solid and there is only a moderate shimmer in dark scenes. Overall it is a good transfer for a twenty year old movie.
The default 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track is passable, though hardly immersive. The surrounds are used primarily for the eerie music cues while the dialogue is contained in the center channel. The aforementioned music track is equal parts effective and synthetically cheesy. There isn't much bass but the film doesn't require it.
There is a good selection of extras on this DVD set, the primary piece being a five-part documentary that chronicles the making of the film. Peter Weir, Harry Ford, and various other members of the cast and crew sit down to reflect on the picture. Anything you could want to know about the preproduction, casting, and shooting of this movie. This documentary is little more than talking heads juxtaposed with behind-the-scenes pictures yet manages to bring about a ton of great information while being interesting to watch.
One deleted scene is included, one that is edited back into the film for television broadcasts. Samuel discovers the wonders of Donkey Kong, while Book's sister discovers the wonders of the Amish life. It is presented in glorious Anamorphic widescreen and runs a few minutes.
The original trailers and three TV spots are captured for posterity.
Director Peter Weir hits another homerun. I've never been disappointed by his work, which always seems to fit great character moments in a taught narrative. "Witness" is no different, presenting a wonderful story (the romance of John and Rachel) within a greater tale (the murder of a Philadelphia police officer). Just about everything in this story works, nothing feels forced, and it is an enjoyable ride.