Anne Hathaway’s back, baby! I mean, yes, okay, she never really left. In the last two years alone she’s starred in Netflix’s Joan Didion adaptation The Last Thing He Wanted, environmental thriller Dark Waters, Amazon’s Modern Love series, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels remake The Hustle, and the delightfully inchoate misfire Serenity. But as you watch her levitate, arms outstretched a la Marilyn Monroe in a glamorous one-shouldered gown, bald head peppered with sores, sharp teeth bared in a manic smile in Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, out 22nd October on HBOMax, it’s hard not to think of this role as a rebirth of sorts.
For years, Hathaway has been caught in a lose-lose situation. When her performance in a film is great (as it so often is), everyone says she cares too much. When the movie flops, it’s assumed to be her fault. When she wins an Academy Award, she’s too earnest. When she takes time off to be with her family, she’s not trying hard enough. The Hathahate that reached its peak around the time she whispered “It came true” to her Oscar back in 2013 may have died down in recent years, but its specter haunts her every move. Her only way out? Commit to the bit. Take on a campy, over-the-top role, and dominate it.
As the Grand High Witch in this latest interpretation of The Witches, she does exactly that. From the moment she first enters the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel wearing an impeccable houndstooth suit, blonde wig and menacingly perfect red lipstick, she sucks all the air out of the room. It’s a Devil Wears Prada reunion for Hathway and Stanley Tucci, who plays the hotel’s sycophantic manager Mr. Stringer. But insecure, unpolished, overly eager Andy is gone. Miranda Priestley’s in charge now, right down to the way Hathway imperiously hands over her sunglasses to her subordinate witch — That’s all. She’s deliciously evil, petty, vain and dismissive, cackling with glee one minute, irately berating her fellow witches the next. And though Hathway makes it look easy, it’s a performance that demands rigorous discipline; too much and it veers into the absurd, too little and it doesn’t land. Hathaway has found that sweet middle, and even her vaguely Eastern European accent can’t detract from the showy mystique.
Her performance is the highlight in an otherwise forgettable film. Zemeckis’ version of The Witches always feels like it’s on the cusp of a golden nugget of truth, only to shy back, relying on CGI rather than good storytelling. Unlike in Dahl’s original text or Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 movie, the hero here is a young Black child (Jahzir Bruno) in the Deep South, orphaned except for his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), which could have given an additional layer of subtext to the story. One particularly striking scene between the Grand High Witch and Grandma almost gets there, as the former looms and snarls at the latter as they’re both sitting in the hotel’s well-appointed dining room. But ultimately, the characters aren’t developed enough to really unpack the significance of an affluent white woman preying on the children “no one will miss,” as Grandma tells her grandson at one point.
If this movie is remembered at all, it will largely come down to the Hathway memes that will doubtless flood Twitter in the coming days. She makes the character feel like her own, no small feat for a role that has been owned by Anjelica Huston for nearly three decades. But in pure Hathway fashion (earnest, gushing admiration for a Hollywood idol, the very same behaviour that would have been mocked in the past), she managed to diffuse that bomb early. Just two weeks ago, the actress paid tribute to Huston, who so memorably portrayed the Grand High Witch in Roeg’s version, praising her performance as “magnificent — witty, unforgettable, scary as hell and sheer perfection.” Still, her words hold more than just praise. Huston’s turn as the Grand High Witch came four years after she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor, and would mark her entree as the queen of ‘90s camp. Over the next decade, she’d play Morticia Addams in 1991’s The Addams Family and 1993’s Addams Family Values, and the evil stepmother in 1998’s Ever After. Huston’s career trajectory may offer a model for Hathaway’s going forward, as she navigates the transition from ingenue to whatever new Hollywood identity is required of women once they hit 40.
This isn’t the first time Hathway has dipped her toes into the world of camp. Arguably, she’s been prepping for this her entire career, starting with her 2010 performance as The White Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and its 2016 sequel, Alice Through The Looking Glass. Her persona as a spoiled socialite in 2018’s Ocean’s 8 isn’t quite camp, but it offers a glimmer of the self-awareness needed to pull it off. And then came 2019’s The Hustle, a boorish, boring comedy that wasted her talents, but which gave her the opportunity to stretch herself in a new way — her Witches accent is a direct descendent of whatever was going on in that movie.
All in all though, what’s most striking about The Witches is just how much fun Hathway appears to be having. She’s not apologising for enjoying herself, or belittling how much she’s relishing this role. Instead, she’s leaning in, and bringing us along for the ride. You don’t like her? Joke’s on you.