Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Season of the Witch (2011)

Season of the Witch (2011)
Directed by Dominic Sena; Starring Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy

Rating: 2/5

Somewhere in medieval Europe, three women are sentenced to death as penalty for witchcraft, then hanged and drowned for their crimes. All our preconceptions about the brutality and futility of the classic witch trial are brought to the forefront, as the youngest begs for mercy.

The first scene is an introductory vignette of misdirection, as one of the hanged women returns to life and dispatches the sentencing priest. In this universe, the presence of actual witches and demons and the success of biblical incantations in suppressing them lends credence to the church’s claims, and makes them somewhat justified in their precautions.

The story stars Nicolas Cage, who has nothing if not a varied filmography. Here, he appears as Teutonic knight named Behman, who returns from the crusades with his friend and comrade Felson (Ron Perlman) to find his homeland ravaged by the Black Death. The scene is set for the duo though a montage of battles chronicling the decades long Crusade, through desert, snow, day and night, all of which seem to be shot on a soundstage, in contrast to the later Alpine location shoots. The characters become disillusioned with the senseless killing, and decide to abscond and return home.

It’s not particularly good, but it is entertainingly over the top. Behman and Felson are swiftly recruited to escort a young woman, Anna (Claire Foy), who has confessed to witchcraft, to a monastery where she will stand trial, and become the subject of a ritual designed to halt the onslaught of the plague. They assemble a fellowship that pales in comparison to any Lord of the Rings movie, and set off on a road fraught with peril, through the oppressive forests of Styria (now modern day Austria and Slovenia).

The intention is really to create more of a horror picture than a historical action adventure, as evidenced by the dark colour palette, the central European setting full of Gothic spires and dense forests, and the frequents sights of the afflicted, covered in grim pustules. The genre is further cemented by a cameo from veteran horror star Christopher Lee.

Director Dominic Sena worked with Cage on Gone in 60 Seconds (2000). He was criticised as being a boring director then, and regrettably does little to shift this label now. Thematically, the two works couldn’t be further apart, so his ambition is to be admired. Yet the studio was unimpressed with test screenings, and the film was re-edited before release, with some scenes re-shot with a different director, the uncredited Brett Ratner, of Rush Hour, X-Men 3 and Prison Break fame (and even another Nicolas Cage movie, 2000’s The Family Man).

It’s a shame, because the rest of the production is actually very high quality, with convincing sets, costumes, and fight choreography. The overall darkness of the film, and the atmosphere of deep forests and abandoned villages, effectively gives the entire piece a foreboding overtone.

The main ‘victim’ of the piece is Anna, who we are meant to side with as the innocent receiving end of the church’s unforgiving stance against witchcraft. After all, her ‘confession’ was eked out under torture. But flashes of violence and surprising strength belie a darker streak within her. Different members of the group react to her accordingly: the young squire Kay (Robert Sheehan) would see her released, whilst unscrupulous guide Hagamar (Stephen Graham) favours killing her swiftly, to end a futile quest. Behman, weary of death and killing, remains ambiguous, focusing on holding the group together.

Again, misdirection is the intention of the film, and it’s hard to know what to make of Anna. She saves one member of the group from certain death, but summons wolves to savage another. On some level, she seems to be passing judgement based on the level of trust each of her captors affords her, which itself is unsettling enough to rob her of her little sympathy and paint Kay as a na├»ve idealist.

A word on the script and accents: though the characters are ostensibly Austrian citizens of the Holy Roman Empire, the English speaking actors are a blend of the American (the leads Cage and Perlman) and the inevitably more authentic sounding accents of the British cast.

This is sometimes not an issue: the superior Valkyrie (2008) had all German characters speaking English with the actors’ native accents, and did not suffer as a result. The problem with it here is that the script seems unsure what it’s trying to do with itself. Half the time, characters debate the virtues of honour or the church, in typical pseudo medieval Hollywood language.

The rest of the time they delve into American colloquialisms (particularly courtesy of Felson): “Let’s get the hell outta here” or “He looks like someone pissed in his holy water.” Of course, this is an attempt to write the friendship and banter between Cage and Perlman; it’s just not very convincing. Or at least it might be in a buddy cop movie, and not an ominous, medieval environment, heavy with religious symbolism. The film takes itself too seriously the rest of the time to justify the style of humour.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cage gets some of my favourite lines (not necessarily for the right reasons), delivered completely deadpan: “There is no hope here. Only plague.” Say what you will about Cage, he’s made some decent films, and he’s made some not so decent ones, but he definitely has entertainment value.

Really, the film’s indecisiveness is the main problem, as the film makers do not seem to know whether they are making a dark and suspenseful thriller, or a buddy road movie. A film squarely in the middle achieves neither. The script too, lets everybody down. It’s certainly watchable as a B-movie romp, so it is perhaps fitting that I viewed this film in its natural home of late night television.

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