“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… Nothing outside you can give you any place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”
Another Cage Wisdom review, another insight by the greatest short story writer who ever lived, Flannery O’Connor. The Season of the Witch is not, to borrow a phrase from O’Connor’s native South, a high-falutin’ work. It plays out like Seventh Seal fanfic. However, it is concerned in its limited way, with those who try to find peace through place, only to discover (as in much fantasy fiction) that it can only be found within yourself. Like The Seventh Seal (1957) The Season of the Witch is set in desolate 14th century Europe where the wretchedness of life amongst plague-blasted villages has given rise to desperate superstitions. Women both waif and crone (SotW merrily upholds a waif/ crone dichotomy) are being accused of witchcraft by Church-sanctioned witchfinders and hung by the neck until dead. Party to these crimes and loyal to the Church, are old knightly chums Behman (Nic) and Felson (Ron Perlman). The two lunkheads have thrust their way through a merry dance of crusading, drinking and bonking; hacking and slashing their way through infidel hordes before going to a tavern to restore stamina points with some comely wenches.
It’s a good life if you don’t weaken… but like in all good RPGs there comes a time when you sit back from you computer monitor, glance at yourself in the mirror and think, “What the hell have I been doing with my life?” Our stout protagonists come to this realisation having viciously slaughtered a number of women who, with horrible realisation, are discovered not to be interchangeable Moors (their term, not mine!) but actually quite attractive women who one could have done the dirty with! The waste! Spurred into existential angst our heroes abandon the Church and fleetfoot across Europe, until they are apprehended as deserters and charged with the task of transporting a duplicitous (or Behman suspects, innocent) witch across the country to be tried. Like in the best table top dice yarns they (the warriors) are accompanied by a team consisting of a rogue, a novice, an old-hand and the titular witch; the only one of them to have any magic points, so we know that such a ridiculously unbalanced team won’t make it through the campaign unscathed.
The whole thing could have been avoided of course if Behman and Felson had chosen to be Quakers rather than crusaders, but I suppose you can’t blame them for having been born in the 14th rather than the 17th century. Still, you’ll never meet a Quaker conquistador. That said, I can’t imagine Behman and Felson getting on very well with the periods of reflective silence typical of Meeting, since they have a half-baked wise crack for everything. As Behman reminds Felson, he’s saved his ass hundreds of times and probably made a crack at his expense every time he did it. They’re best buds and there is an affable chemistry between the pair – evidence perhaps of the fact that Cage and Perlman got on well behind scenes; perhaps due to similarities in their Hellboy/ Ghost Rider franchises. Or maybe Nic was just impressed at meeting someone whose voice is a single octave below his own.
Perlman as ever is playing a guy who would punch you playfully upon the shoulder and you’d wake up to find yourself in A&E. He’s also, if we are to continue the Seventh Seal comparisons, the squire Jöns to Cage’s Antonius Block. Both are convincingly stalwart, but their glib and wry remarks upon the unfolding events are 21st not 13th century pub talk. Bragi Schut’s script reads like the baby bumper book of Middle English, though the plotting and structure are surprisingly good. I had suspected that Cage would meet the script on his own terms, elevating its more ridiculous turns to something sublime. However, his acting is workmanlike. I would be hesitant to read cynical opportunism into the choice of role, as his turn here is serious to a point. His Behman displays unwavering concern that never quite furrows deep enough to be anguish. The acting is consigned to the eyebrows and the voice, with most of the effort channelled into the learnt crafts of swordplay and horseback riding. Except for the buddy based interludes, the delivery is cold and almost disinterested. Danger at hand never seems immediate or perilous as in, say, the Lord of the Rings films and I feel the under-energized acting only adds to this.
Lack of commitment feels like a curious and unfair accusation to make of Cage. In interview he talks convincingly of how as a child he played at being a knight and the role has been a life-long dream of his. I wouldn’t like to second guess at what, if anything, may have prevented his total immersion into the role, but on screen he never seems totally convinced of his own acting or of the situations he finds himself in. For me, this was the first time I could say this of Cage and I hope that things will feel mad and dangerous again come Drive Angry 3D come February, which I look forward to with aplomb!
The much maligned witch of the title, imprisoned in a horse-drawn cart for much of the film provides most of the tension of the film and is played with dedication and nuance by Claire Foy, in an underappreciated role. In fact, generally reviewers have leapt upon the title like the wolves that turn into nastier wolves that Cage encounters on his witch couriering mission! As Mike Ward says, “People love to hate Nicolas Cage, especially movie critics with dark-framed glasses and large record collections.” There’s a binary that critics seem to fall back on when reviewing Cage’s movies of that it’s either unpalatable dross committed sinfully by Cage to stuff dollar wadges into his back pocket. Or the film is a product of Cage’s insanity – a midnight movie gem that shall be star of a thousand youtube videos with a million ‘likes’ attached! However, like most things except binary itself, Cage exists on a spectrum. The Season of the Witch will never stand up against Adaptation or even a sillier film like Vampire’s Kiss, but it features zombie monks and pleasing fantasy locations – especially a creepy wood straight out of the Pinocchio ride at Disneyland – and to paraphrase The Sheep-Pig by the recently belated Dick-King Smith, “that’ll do Cage; that’ll do.”