Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday Film Night

PHS Columnist Kate Walker is actually in Manchester at the opening of the M&B Centenary exhibition And then He Kissed Her in the Central Library there. But thanks to Blogger's pre-loading system, she's also here to talk about one of her favourite films of all time - Witness

When it first appeared on cinema screens, Witness was promoted with the taglines:

Harrison Ford is John Book – A big city cop who knows too much. His only evidence: a small boy who's seen too much...

8 year old Samuel: sole witness to a murder.

Three killers who'll stop at nothing to silence him.

One honest cop who'll give his life to save him...

Witness comes billed as a thriller, but it's so much more than that, and in fact the use of the word "murder" in the ads is really misleading. This is, first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story – a ‘forbidden romance’ story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices that other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller.

Harrison Ford stars as a disillusioned cop heading nowhere, when he becomes involved in a case that will radically change his perceptions. A young Amish boy (Lukas Haas) is witness to a murder in a train station where he and his mother (Kelly McGillis) have been travelling to visit her sister. It's a rare trip for them outside their puritanical Amish roots and only confirms their fear of a seemingly-violent outside world.

Ford's aggressive and coarse manner does not go down well with the sensitive McGillis who is trying to protect her son. He seems equally unpopular with his colleagues and the further he delves into the case, the clearer it becomes that he's in personal danger.

This development allows Weir to get Ford into the Amish countryside where he seeks refuge. Initially he's unwelcome but as he adapts to their ways they open up to him and this transformation occupies the body of the film. It's a fascinating and quiet world that Weir paints. But underneath the blossoming relationship between Ford and McGillis and the overall calm, lies the inevitable danger that they will be tracked down and violence will enter their world.

Weir's first film set in America explores a theme familiar from his earlier work: the discovery of an all but forgotten culture in modern society: in this case the Amish, a puritanical sect whose life in Pennsylvania has remained unchanged since the 18th century. Threat explodes into this community when ,finding his own life endangered, John Book is forced to escape to the Amish ranch with the bad guys in pursuit. The film also allows Book to fall in love with the boy's mother (McGillis), and displays the distance between the messy world he leaves behind and the cloistered one in which he takes refuge. Powerful, assured, full of beautiful imagery but without any easy moralising, it also offers a performance of surprising skill and sensitivity from Ford.

The movie's first act sets up the plot, leaving it a lot of time to deal with the characters and learn about them. The film begins on an Amish settlement in Pennsylvania, where for 200 years a self-sufficient religious community has proudly held onto the ways of their ancestors. The Amish are deeply suspicious of outsiders and stubbornly dedicated to their rural lifestyle, with its horses and carriages, its communal barn-raisings, its gas lanterns instead of electricity, hooks instead of buttons.

An Amish man dies. His widow and young son leave on a train journey. In the train station in Philadelphia, the little boy witnesses a murder. Harrison Ford plays the tough big city detective who gets assigned to the case. He stages line-ups hoping the boy can spot the murderer. He shows the kid mug shots. Then it turns out that the police department itself is implicated in the killing. Ford is nearly murdered in an ambush. His life and the lives of the widow and her son are in immediate danger. He manages to drive them all back to the Amish lands of Pennsylvania before collapsing from loss of blood.

And it's at this point, really, that the movie begins. Up until the return to Pennsylvania, Witness has been a slick, superior thriller. Now it turns into an intelligent and perceptive love story. It's not one of those romances where the man and woman fall into each other's arms because their hormones are programmed that way. It's about two independent, complicated people who begin to love each other because they have shared danger, they work well together, they respect each other - and because their physical attraction for each other is so strong it almost becomes another character in the movie. The romance between Book and the lovely Amish widow Rachel Lapp is hinted at, paid attention to, and brought to life with warmth and subtlety ... plus the movie "pays off" the romance angle with a refreshing lack of predictability.

The whole middle section of this movie shows the man from the city and the simple Amish women within the context of the Amish community. It is masterful filmmaking, The thriller elements alone would command our attention. The love story by itself would be exciting. The ways of life in the Amish community are so well observed that they have a documentary feel. But all three elements work together so well that something very special happens.

Harrison Ford has never given a better performance in a movie. Kelly McGillis, who plays the Amish widow, has a kind of luminous simplicity about her; it is refreshing and even subtly erotic to see a woman who doesn't subscribe to all the standard man-woman programmed responses of modern society.

The love that begins to grow between them is not made out of clich├ęs; the cultural gulf that separates them, is at least as important to both of them as the feelings they have. For a romance novelist the growing relationship between the two is a lesson in portraying sexual and emotional tension that grows with every glance, every heartbeat, every breath.

When they finally kiss, it is a glorious sensuous moment because this kiss is a sharing of trust and passion, not just required element of movie images. Witness is a film about adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them. The forbidden romance element, the poignancy of the gulf between the very different societies these two come from, is a lesson in the real nature of conflict, where life choices, background, beliefs and honour create the division between these two, not just bad tempered arguing and defiance. The scene where Book comes across Rachel bathing is powerfully sensual, erotic without being heavily sexual. A glance, an expression that crosses as face, says it all. It makes the film a wonderful romance at the same time as it is also one hell of a thriller.

There are some fantastic performances from a very young Lukas Haas, Kelly McGillis at her most beguiling, Josef Sommer as a scene-stealing papa, and, of course, Harrison Ford. Stepping away from the Indiana Jones / Han Solo mould, Ford is clearly enjoying the fact that he's being asked to play a mere mortal, and the actor proved a lot of people wrong with his performance in this film. His transformation from action hero to leading man was cemented once Witness hit the screens, and it still represents some of the actor's best work.

One of the more entertaining side-games you can play while watching this film is ‘Spot that face.’ There’s Danny Glover playing against type as a ruthlessly crooked cop, a young Viggo Mortensen as a bright-eyed Amish youth, and Alexander Gudonov as the "more appropriate" suitor for Rachel's affections.

And then there is the unforgettable scene where Ford and McGillis dance in the farm barn. In this list of favourite dance scenes in films, Astaire and Rogers didn't make the list but Ford and McGillis did. The awkward shuffle they do to Greg Chapman's version of 'What A Wonderful World' hardly merits a mention for its choreography. The setting is everything. The illicit attraction between the big city cop and rural Amish widow forms the emotional heart of the romantic thriller.

In fact, the scene nearly didn't make it. A late addition to the project, Weir rewrote the script, stripping out much of its melodrama in his draft, including this particular scene. Instead, he wanted to concentrate on the culture clash between Ford and the Amish. "Obviously the Amish element and the contrast between the two worlds was what interested me in the script," says Weir. It took his veteran producer Edward S. Feldman to convince him otherwise.

"He kept saying 'remember the audience' and 'remember it's a thriller'." So, the Ford-McGillis relationship once again formed the crux of the film, and Weir reinstated the barn scene, though removing much of the original dialogue in favour of nuances and glances. Personally, I can’t imagine it with that dialogue – it’s the nuances and glances that make it.

And as a motto for writers, I can’t think of a better one than ‘remember the audience’. That important spotlight on the relationship between two sympathetic people which brings everything else surrounding them into sharper focus and makes it all matter more is, after all, at the core of what we write.

Kate's latest Presents title Spanish Billionaire, Innocent Wife is published in June. It's also the title being offered as a special 'taster' in a special promotion between Harlequin and Daily Lit a company that offers books delivered in instalments by email. And in the same month, her bestselling Alcolar Family Trilogy is being rereleased in an ebook Bundle - available from


  1. This is on my top five all time favorite movies list. The acting is just amazing. Even the little Amish boy was just so good. Love, love, love it.

    I agree this was Ford's finest performance. I thought this movie deserved the Oscar that year. It's the kind you NEVER forget.

  2. Coming late, but I LOVE this movie. (Pardon the shouting. It seemed called for.) Mind you, in my version, it ends after the kiss under the birdhouse! ;-)

    Great summation, Kate!