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Season of the Witch: Film Review

1:29 PM PST 1/6/2011 by Kirk Honeycutt

The Bottom Line

A CGI freakout at the finale can't save this mundane medieval thriller about witches, devils and disillusioned knights.

Released:

January 7, 2011

The real suspense generated by "Season of the Witch," a supernatural thriller set in the 14th century, comes from a single source: How far will the filmmakers go to the dark side, which is to say, total camp?

As a motley crew of thinly written characters journeys across Plague-ridden Europe, the tilt is increasingly campy, but the line that finally decides things is this: "We're going to need more holy water."

The film's own needs go far beyond holy water as the only successful elements here are the production design and locations in Hungary and Austria, which truly please the eye. Or at least they do when the scenery isn't blocked by Nicolas Cage and his fellow actors as they struggle to breath life into stale material and trite characters.

Cage, whose career choices are increasingly alarming, no longer assures major box office, so this Relativity Media release may experience a disappointing opening weekend despite a major marketing push. Overseas coin may well outstrip the modest domestic box office, but that does Relativity no good as it holds only domestic rights.

Cage's Gone in Sixty Seconds director, Dominic Sena, keeps things moving at a bright clip, but the film loses even a modicum of credibility due to a built-in conflict of interest in Bragi Schut's screenplay. His story realistically paints the medieval Catholic Church as a repository of superstition, ethnic hatred, torture, murder and intolerance. And yet, as in The Exorcist or any other movie where demons and devils put in appearances, the Church is still seen as the last refuge against evil. It all depends on how one defines "evil," apparently if torture, murder and intolerance don't make the cut.

Cage and his co-star Ron Perlman play war-weary Crusaders who desert the killing fields of the Middle East to return home, having tired of slaying in the Church's name so many heretics, especially when those heretics include women and children. These are two very modern dudes, in fact, who speak colloquial English and all but roll their eyes when Church authorities deem the Plague to be the work of a strange girl they label a "witch."

Clearly her confession was tortured out of her, and just as clearly the Plague has a biological pathology, not a demonic one. And yet Schut plays it both ways as the film wants to end in a CG freak show of zombie monks, flying demons and great balls of fire.

Under threat of death for desertion, the knights agree to transport the witch (Claire Foy) -- who in true Hollywood tradition is a beautiful witch -- to a distant abbey for her "trial." Her escorts include a true-believer priest (Stephen Campbell Moore) with piercing eyes; an eager youngster (Robert Sheehan) who aspires to knighthood; a knight (Ulrich Thomsen) who has lost his family to the Plague; and a con man (Stephen Graham) who should supply comic relief but never does.

The initial roadblocks are standard issue -- a crumbling rope bridge to cross and a band of wolves to fend off. But increasingly the movie suggests the witch's supernatural powers are at work. The filmmakers do in the end find a way around the innocent girl/evil witch conundrum, but this is emblematic of a film that wants to embrace realism and the supernatural all at once.

Cage supplies energy but no depth in his portrayal of a disillusioned knight. That also goes for Perlman, who never appears comfortable in the sidekick role and pretty much goes through the (exaggerated) motions.

Foy has more personalities to play than Halle Berry does in Frankie and Alice. Nevertheless, she is the only intriguing character in the movie, especially since Moore, Sheehan, Thomsen and Graham's characters are all one-note constructs.

The film's other departments go for bombast, especially with makeup (for Plague victims) and music. More holy water may actually have helped.