' I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream.'


Film review: Robert Eggers's The Witch

The wilderness of colonial New-England, 1630.  Upon the threat of banishment for his extremist religious views, a Puritan farmer leaves a plantation town with his wife and five children and founds a farmhouse at the edge of a forbidding wood. There they begin a devout life in solitude until, one day, the baby is stolen by a malevolent figure that lurks in the trees, and superstition and mistrust set in. As the family begins to unravel, a sinister force slowly takes hold...  

The Witch does not conform to the tired, ten-a-penny examples of modern horror that dole out cheap thrills with tiredly predictable jumps and scares. To watch this film is to be immersed human darkness, to be filled with a dread that slowly creeps beneath your skin and haunts you long after the credits have rolled. It is an exquisitely unflinching study of trauma, visceral angst, and paranoia that is framed, and not dominated, by the supernatural.

The film’s young director, Robert Eggers, grew up in New England, where the ruins of colonial houses still remain and stories of witches are still a part of the landscape. “I had witch nightmares all through my life”, he explains. “I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story, something that felt like an inherited nightmare from the past.”  

And for Eggers, the devil was in the detail. The film was almost entirely shot by the light of a candle or sunlight, the sparing soundtrack uses instruments from the era, and the language is directly influenced by contemporary reported accounts of witchcraft. “I think there’s a kind of magic in the authenticity,” he reveals. The director also fought a long battle to persuade the films investors to provide a budget that would allow for total historical accuracy, from constructing sets using actual period tools down to sourcing antique, hand-woven cloth for costumes. “My obsession was to recreate the 17th century in order for the witch to be real again for people,” says Eggers, “and for her to be powerful again.”

And quite rightly so, since, to the superstitious, male-dominated zeitgeist of those times, a witch was very real – and very threatening. She was a monstrous embodiment of unbridled femininity, wicked, deadly, and horribly beguiling; she was an inversion of the domesticated housewife, what Eggers refers to as “the anti-mother”, who dances naked in the woods for the devil and steals unbaptised infants away into the night.  

Eggers’s witch is the catalyst in a grim and inescapable alchemical reaction that occurs as the family unit collapses under the pressure of a self-imposed exile and consumes itself.

Compelling performances are given by the whole cast, most especially so by its younger members: actor, Anya Taylor-Joy, absorbingly portrays the film’s central character, Thomasin, who struggles amid the constraints of her puritanical surroundings as she enters into womanhood; a truly remarkable acting talent is demonstrated by teenager Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays Thomasin's younger brother, Caleb, during an incredibly  disturbing scene of possession and euphoric torment.

The Witch is a work of beautiful cinematography that masterfully handles the use of light and shadow. What’s more, each carefully constructed shot is a lesson in the creation of anxiety: never before have trees been rendered so utterly menacing.

It is easy to draw a host of themes from the film – feminism, coming of age, the plight of the outcast, the fragility of the social infrastructure – yet Eggers is wisely unwilling to restrict the piece by preaching his own personal meaning too heavily. In the same way, Eggers’s elusive witch figure herself acts only a kind of profane mirror in which the characters descry the awful truth of their own fears, flaws and longings, and perhaps help us acknowledge our own. “The weight and intensity of the past has a kind of power”, he says. “I find it’s a better place to ask big questions. […] The dead speak more loudly to me than the living.” 

The Witch was released in cinemas 11th March. Watch the trailer below.

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