December 02, 1996 12:00 PM

Paul Scofield, Bruce Davison, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, Winona Ryder

Passionate, engrossing and invigo-ratingly intelligent, this historical drama easily succeeds on all its levels. Superficially the plot is an account of the notorious witchery trials of 1692 in Salem, Mass. The screenplay was adapted by Arthur Miller from his own masterful 1953 play, which used the trials, fascinating enough on their own, as a parable for the then contemporary persecutions of suspected Communists during the McCarthy era. Yet so subtle are Miller and director Nicholas Hytner, you have to look for the McCarthy parallels. Nobody is preaching here.

Ryder is the leader of a gaggle of young women whose defiant midnight ceremonies enrage Puritan Salemites, who level charges of witchcraft against them. Allen, wife of Ryder’s former lover Day-Lewis, is also accused of being a witch. While a Salem minister (Davison) and an itinerant witch-hunting clergyman (Robert Campbell) aid the persecution, the venerable Scofield plays the chief judge, and his subtlety is especially striking against the knuckle-gnawing histrionics of Day-Lewis. More of a surprise is the quietly moving performance of Karron Graves as a frightened girl who questions Ryder’s testimony. Miller raises issues that resonate far beyond the witch-hunting context and even beyond the red-baiting subtext. Audiences can attend this movie and enjoy the rare sensation of being treated with respect by the people who made it. (PG-13)

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