Mise-en-Scene

Films – Witness /Director- Peter Weir

Plot outline- a young Amish boy, Samuel is the sole witness to a murder in the bathroom of a railway station. When it is discovered that the murderer is actually a policeman, the boy and his mother are whisked back to their community and into hiding by ‘good cop’ John Book.

The film is equal parts crime story and romance as John starts to fall in love with the boys mother, Rachel. After the arrival of John at the Amish community, I expected the film to return to the city and to it’s gritty police department themes. Here it is somewhat unconventional as the film stays in the village and starts to explore the ways of this community and the simple life of the people who reside in it.

I can definitely see why this film is considered a classic. The style of every shot is extremely well thought out and used to convey the emotion of the characters- an excellent introduction into the concept of mise-en-scene, which in its simplest can be referred to ‘placer on stage’. Probably the most brilliantly blocked out scenes are the ones that involve John Book and Rachel. The director subtly builds the anticipation of their impending physical encounter. Some standout scenes are the one in which John catches a glimpse of Rachel bathing. She knows that he is watching her but makes a decision to break the shackles of her moral code and turn to face him, allowing him to see her naked. Also, later the film when she is seen deliberately leaving her white headdress behind when she runs to embrace him, leaving that part of her world behind.

The director is also very deliberate with framing his shots, often using the antique props to physically create window-like frames allowing the viewer to feel as though they are looking into this world in a slightly voyeuristic way.

In the final action sequence we are led via a chase scene in and around the barn. We are already familiar with the layout of the location and the props within it due to the forethought of the director. This familiarity is somewhat subconscious but the director has already shown us these locations and the way they work, such as earlier in the film when the old man pops up through a secret trapdoor. John uses it as an escape route while being chased and it it feels genuine because we know that John Book has seen it used before. So we as an audience don’t have that oh, that was convenient moment.
All these tricks used by the director are carefully honed skills. He understands the conventions of great storytelling and that’s why film students are still dissecting this movie that was made nearly 30 years ago.

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