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Witness stars Harrison Ford as John Book, a Philadelphia cop who becomes entangled in a web of police corruption and narcotics deals. What’s unusual about the situation, however, is that at the center of the dangerous situation is a young Amish boy who happens to witness a brutal murder of an undercover police agent. Book turns out to be the only man interested in protecting the innocent boy and his recently-widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis).

Witness is an excellent, very engaging film. The different elements of the movie are balanced well; the danger that young Samuel (Lukas Haas) is in is one source of tension, but so is the Amish community’s attempt to deal with the stranger in their midst, as well as Book’s relationship with Rachel. It becomes evident early in the film that Witness is not going to be a typical action or police movie; what seems to be a major plot element is revealed shortly into the movie, shifting the focus away from the “action” elements to the relationships that are put under stress by the threat of danger.

The 112 minutes that the movie runs is neither too long nor too short: it’s enough for the story to unfold fully, without dragging on. Without giving away the ending, it’s possible to say that it is a dramatic and very effective ending, and not necessarily one that you would expect from a Hollywood production.

The acting is of a very high quality all around, from Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis to the secondary characters. Lukas Haas, who plays the little boy Samuel, is completely perfect for his role. A quote from Roger Ebert on the DVD case claims that “Harrison Ford has never given a better performance in a movie,” and this seems to be still quite near the truth, even sixteen years after Witness was made; Ford turns his character into a fully three-dimensional character.  

Witness, in fact, is a film that demands good acting: a substantial part of the movie is conveyed through body language and facial expression: people watching each other, the expressions passing over their faces, how and when they look up or turn or react to another’s presence. With lesser actors or weaker performances, the movie could easily have been incomprehensible or wooden, but as it is, the movie’s story is richly conveyed through the actors’ expressions. The result is a film with a minimum of unnecessary dialogue, and a maximum of visual effect.

Witness won two Academy Awards, for Best Writing and Best Film Editing, and was nominated for six more (Best Actor Best Director, and Best Picture).

Unfortunately, the transfer of this DVD is extremely disappointing. It’s an anamorphic 1.85:1 image, but the quality is very bad. There is a high level of noise in the image throughout the movie. Even with the noise reduction feature turned on, it’s still very noticeable. The image is satisfactory in bright, clearly-lit scenes, but the image becomes extremely grainy when the movie shifts to a dimly-lit scene, such as in the several indoor scenes lit by lamplight. It detracts from the viewing experience, and is a very displeasing fault in a DVD of such a good movie.

The Dolby 5.1 sound is so-so. The sound at the beginning of the movie is slightly muffled, and seems to be primarily focused on the center speakers, with little use of surround. It’s adequate for the film, though, and doesn’t distract from the viewing experience.

The menu is pleasingly straightforward and easy to navigate. The only extras on the disc are a theatrical trailer and an interview with the director, Peter Weir. The interview is brief but worth viewing, with some interesting behind-the-scenes insights into the making of the film.

Overall, this is a difficult DVD to make a clear recommendation for. The movie is highly recommended, but the image quality of the DVD makes it impossible to recommend purchasing this disc at retail price. Probably the best bet is to look for it on sale, or get it through a DVD club at a good price. At the very least, pick it up as a rental: it’s worth seeing even though the transfer is disappointing.