I wish that the film maker had placed the notice that appears at the end of this film at the beginning instead. In it, he says that much of the dialogue and ideas have come from testimony and writings generated in 17th century North America, when belief in witchcraft resulted in the Salem witch-trials. Then, by coincidence I heard a podcast about Salem the very night that I’d seen the film that brought home to me how careful the research had been for this film and how well the filmmaker has constructed the world view it depicts.
Thomasin is the budding adolescent daughter of William and Katherine, who along with their small family have been expelled from their Puritan plantation. Exiled from contact, the family builds a small farm, surrounded by woods. The crops fail and the family is thrown onto its own resources and their deep belief in predestination and a stern, capricious and unyielding God. When the baby disappears and the eldest son dies, the family turn on each other. There’s a very good feminist discussion of the film here.
If the historical note at the end had come earlier, I would have taken the film more seriously as an exploration of the 17th century mindset and worldview. As it was, I kept expecting graphic horror effects to explode onto the screen the next minute, and never quite stopped feeling that I was watching actors bumbling around in a historical re-enactment tourist site. The cinematography is beautiful and the music suitably distressing. In fact, the film has unnerved and affected me more after hearing the BBC podcast and in the light of its historical credentials. I just wish I’d known that earlier.