“The Woman in Black” is a tale with a lot of history behind it. Though it first started out as a novel in 1983 and was adapted into a TV movie six years later, the story is perhaps best known as a stage play in London’s West End, where it is presently the second-longest running play in the region’s history. All that said, I had absolutely zero prior knowledge about the source material in any of its incarnations. For that, I defer to my sister, who’s far and away more knowledgeable and passionate about live theater than I am about movies (also, she recently completed an internship at West End, so there’s that).
I’m afraid I can’t judge The Woman in Black as an adaptation of the novel, an adaptation of the stage play, or as a remake of the TV movie. I can only view this movie as its own stand-alone picture, and on those merits, it works pretty darn well.
The story is set in England during the year 1900 (give or take a few years). After a very disturbing prologue involving three girls in a triple-suicide, we meet Arthur Kipps, played by Daniel Radcliffe. He’s a young solicitor (known as a “lawyer” to my American brethren) whose wife tragically died in childbirth four years ago. He’s still quite heavily in mourning, to the point where he occasionally sees her reflection in his bathroom mirror, but it’s time to buck up. His boss (Hi, Roger Allam! Enjoy your one-scene cameo role!) is sending Kipps out to the heavily isolated Eel Marsh House. Kipps’ job once there is to settle the affairs of its recently departed owners and to sell the house if possible.
So Kipps arrives at the neighboring town, only to find that pretty much everyone there is anxious to make him leave. Of course, partly because the locals decide to act all threatening and ominous instead of forthright and helpful, Kipps goes up to the house anyway. And he quickly finds that even though the inhabitants are all dead, the house isn’t nearly as deserted as previously thought.
Let’s address the elephant in the room right away: To say that Daniel Radcliffe brings a ton of baggage to this role would be an understatement. After all, we’ve seen him grow up as a man and as an actor over the past decade, and we’ve already seen him portray every emotion in the spectrum over eight movies. It’s possible that there might come a day when he escapes the shadow of Rowling (and I sincerely hope that day comes, make no mistake), but it won’t be for quite some time.
As for Kipps, I’ll admit that the role is very difficult to cast. The character has to be young enough to be a fresh-faced solicitor-in-training, yet old enough to be a bereaved husband with a four-year-old son. That’s a tough age window to work with, and I can’t help feeling like the role might have been cast more strongly if Radcliffe was just a grey hair closer to 30. That said, Kipps is supposed to be a brave everyman with a great deal of pathos and emotional baggage. Who better to play such a role than Harry fucking Potter, all grown up?
Though Radcliffe is alone for huge stretches of the movie, he does occasionally get assistance from Ciaran Hinds (the erstwhile Aberforth Dumbledore). Hinds is here responsible for Sam Daily, a rich local skeptic and another bereaved father. Unfortunately, though Daily does get a few good moments of depth and development, it’s clear that the role is far beneath Hinds’ talent. He’s primarily there to make Radcliffe look better by giving him someone to play off of, which is a job that Hinds does admirably. Moreover, it’s worth noting that Daily isn’t a total idiot, as skeptics in horror movies so often are. Additionally, the inclusion of a second character mourning the premature loss of a son does a lot to build on the themes of mourning and letting go.
There are actually quite a few ghosts in this movie, though the main one is of course the veiled woman dressed entirely in black. She’s portrayed in this movie by Liz White (oh, how I do love irony), whom I previously knew from the original Life on Mars. That little discovery made my head spin. I have an impossibly hard time reconciling the adorably sweet Constable Annie Cartwright with the enigmatic terror seen here.
This movie is wonderfully scary, and its presentation of The Woman in Black is a key part of that. Even if her antipathy towards young children is made clear at the outset, her reasons and methods for killing them off are among the movie’s central mysteries. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that through most of the movie, The Woman doesn’t seem to be openly malicious toward Kipps. Is she trying to hurt him in some kind of roundabout way, by frightening him and making it clear that she’s there? Is she going to make a serious attempt on his life at some point? And why is she letting Kipps live if she’s so quick about murdering kids? All of these secrets add a great deal to the tension, and their answers are presented in a very compelling way.
This brings me to the technical aspects of the movie. The screenplay is paced just right, with enough pauses to draw out the suspense while also keeping the film at a brisk 95-minute running time. The horror is overwhelmingly reliant on jump scares, though the shocks are effectively delivered and precisely timed. The oppressively dark visuals helped a lot, of course, and quite a few shots were rather impressively creative. My favorite example comes during a scene when Kipps is holding a candle as he walks through the house at night. Meanwhile, the camera shows a close-up of some nearby stuffed animals. As Kipps walks, the light of his candle reflects off the animals’ eyes in such a way that it looks like they’re watching him. Fucking brilliant.
As for the score, it really is better when it’s non-existent. When the film is dead silent or the score is limited only to a couple of strings, the tension is so thick you’d need a hatchet to cut through it. But when Marco Beltrami tries to compose some actual music for this film, it sounds like… well, it sounds like one of the latter Harry Potter films, to be honest.
My only real problem with the film — though it’s admittedly a slight one — is that those behind the camera seemed to be trying way too hard. Maybe this is just little old jaded me, but so many scenes in this film — especially the grim prologue and the foggy opening credits — seemed like they were going overboard in trying to create a creepy mood. The sets and scares in this movie are often overflowing with cliches, so much so that the atmosphere seems very forced at times. Then again, there’s no denying that the result was very effective. In fact, it lent the film a kind of melodramatic flavor.
To sum up, The Woman in Black is a cracking old-fashioned ghost story. Though the proceedings can get melodramatic and cliched, the scares and effects are nonetheless very impressive. The movie also features a very decent performance from Daniel Radcliffe, who starts his post-Harry Potter career on the right foot. Any horror fans out there should definitely give this film a watch.