The Witch

OUT MARCH 11 / CERT. TBC / 90 MINS.

Empire (UK) - - IN CINEMAS - CHRIS HEWITT

DI­REC­TOR Robert Eggers CAST Anya Tay­lor-joy, Ralph Ine­son, Kate Dickie, Har­vey Scrimshaw

PLOT In their new home, by a wood in 17th-cen­tury New Eng­land, a God­fear­ing English fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence a run of tragic mis­for­tune. Is a witch to blame for their woes?

ON PA­PER, A HOR­ROR film star­ring Finchy from The Of­fice and a goat called Black Phillip doesn’t seem es­pe­cially promis­ing. But Robert Eggers’ as­ton­ish­ing di­rec­to­rial de­but is the kind of hor­ror that favours creep­ing dread over cheap jump scares. Eggers, whose next film is a Nos­fer­atu re­make, is one to watch.

The premise is quickly es­tab­lished — de­vout ex-pat North­erner Wil­liam (Ralph Ine­son — or Finchy if you pre­fer) and his fam­ily (wife, five kids, in­clud­ing new­born baby) are ban­ished from their vil­lage for their killjoy re­li­gious fer­vour. They forge a life from the un­for­giv­ing land and their menagerie, in­clud­ing the afore­men­tioned in­tran­si­gent goat Black Phillip. It’s tough but man­age­able, un­til their baby boy mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­pears. In­trigu­ingly, Eggers shows from the off that the fam­ily is be­ing tar­geted by a witch but cru­cially, his char­ac­ters are kept in the dark. It leaves them grasp­ing at bit­ter ac­cu­sa­tions, counter-al­le­ga­tions and hys­ter­i­cal de­tours into blind faith.

As Eggers es­ca­lates the ten­sion, his cast re­spond ad­mirably. Ine­son’s gut­tural York­shire snarl has never been bet­ter em­ployed, as Wil­liam finds fault in any­one but him­self, while Kate Dickie is typ­i­cally in­tense as his griev­ing wife.

How­ever, it’s the new­com­ers who im­press most. Har­vey Scrimshaw, as the old­est son, whose awak­en­ing sex­u­al­ity seems to act as a bea­con for the witch, gives one of the best child per­for­mances in years. But it’s Anya Tay­lor-joy, as teenage daugh­ter Thomasin, who com­mands the at­ten­tion. Marked out as the witch due to an ill-ad­vised re­mark, she’s a blend of dis­arm­ing guile­less­ness and wide-eyed in­no­cence, but with a bit­ter edge that could, in the right light, be mis­taken for malev­o­lence.

As this pow­der keg of a fam­ily unit ex­plodes, Eggers dis­plays ad­mirable con­trol. One se­quence, in which Eggers and DP Jarin Blaschke hold the shot for what seems like for­ever, as the witch man­i­fests as a se­duc­tress, is un­bear­ably tense. It won’t be for ev­ery­one — it’s slow, the di­a­logue (recre­ated from 17th-cen­tury tran­scripts) is oc­ca­sion­ally im­pen­e­tra­ble, and gore­hounds will be dis­ap­pointed. But rarely has a film this op­pres­sive been so im­pres­sive.

VER­DICT A hugely as­sured de­but, The Witch is a beau­ti­ful, bleak brain­worm that will haunt you for days.

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