The Crucible isn't a pretty film, but Nicholas Hytner's grim movie version of the classic Arthur Miller play is enthralling if you give it half a chance. Naturally, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the opening shot of a troupe of naked young women frolicking wantonly in the woods.
Few people would raise an eyebrow to cauldron-based antics in these dark, millennial days, but it's enough to cause fevered outrage in the provincial 17th century America of The Crucible: after all, this was the time when letting down your hair was considered provocative, and when high fashion was a dress made of anything other than sackcloth. The scene makes for an evocative opener - the teen prank kicking into motion a series of events that speed unstoppably towards "Us vs Them" mob madness.
After Abigail and friends' cavorting is spotted by the local Reverend, they're accused of witchcraft and put on trial. They implicate Proctor's wife Elizabeth (a woman purer than the driven Anthea Turner) in an attempt to free themselves, and a horrifying sequence of events begins to unfold. Accusations fly, judgements are pronounced, and sentences (involving uncomfortable rock-ribcage interfaces and worse) are quickly and ruthlessly carried out.
After a measured start, The Crucible explodes into a melodramatic but never less than gripping story. As courtroom drama, it's moving - Ryder is outstanding as the angry, hysterical Abigail, caught up in a conspiracy of lies from which there's no escape; Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a stubborn yet vulnerable John Proctor; Joan Allen delivers a heart-breaking performance as the anguished Elizabeth, a fervently religious woman unable to disprove the allegations made against her; and director Nicholas Hytner, who brought us The Madness Of King George (he seems to be specialising in tales with a nut in every bite) is always in complete control of his material.
Those unfamiliar with the play won't know that the The Crucible was written as a thinly disguised attack on the McCarthy anti-communist "witch hunts", which caused similar panic and recrimination in 1950s America. Just as Abigail and her frightened friends sing like stoolpigeons to try to save their own pretty necks, so eminent politicians, writers and actors of the Cold War era sacrificed their left-of-centre friends to save the spotlight from falling on themselves. Nothing "evil" - unless you count fear and stupidity - is actually going on in the Salem of The Crucible, but the film hammers home a message the complacent 1990s would benefit from heeding.
The Crucible won't be everyone's cup of Tetley, and, with Bound, Mars Attacks!, Fierce Creatures and Jerry Maguire making February a bumper movie month, it's hard to see how this thoughtful, careful film will capture much of an audience. But if lesbianism, aliens and "Death Fish2" don't yank your filmgoing chain, The Crucible - with its superb cinematography and sensitive acting - makes a worthy alternative to guns 'n' gals.