The Woman in Black
Jane Goldman (Novel: Susan Hill)
Daniel Radcliffe, Sophie Stuckey, Roger Allam, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Daniel Cerqueira, Liz White
PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images
Buy on DVD
Buy on Blu-ray
Whenever a film that focuses primarily on chills and thrills rather than blood and gore, audiences need to take notice. They don't make films like The Woman in Black anymore and that's not for lack of trying.
The story centers on a recently-widowed young man whose moping has nearly cost him his job as a junior associate at a prestigious law firm. When they offer him an unenviable task at a remote village, it's success or termination. Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) arrives days before his young son is supposed to meet him there, and discovers that the town's children are dying mysterious deaths and that a mysterious ghost at a nearby estate, the one he's been sent to prepare for sale, may be responsible.
Radcliffe has already shown a willingness to step out of the box earning two Drama Desk nominations (which were both thought to be likely to translate to Tony nominations, but didn't) for his performances in the Broadway play Equus and musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This, however, is his first major foray into film after the end of his successful run as "The Boy Who Lived" in the Harry Potter franchise. It's good to see the young thespian stretching his acting muscles, although much of the Kipps character's reactions are ones he has used in a few of the darker Potter films. Still, there's the faint glimmer of potential in this performance, conveying a man weary beyond his years, though he never completely comes off as a widower.
His surrounding support are solid in underdeveloped roles. Ciaran Hinds does a satisfying job with Daily, one of the wealthy local residents who tries to steer Kipps away from the haunting, claiming that everything is playing out in his mind while knowing more about the truth than he wants to let on. However, it's Janet McTeer as his wife who pulls the entire film together with her chillingly psychotic turn. Mrs. Daily seems fairly normal at first and Kipps finds her a charming presence, but her eccentricities, including letting the dogs eat at the table, are compounded by a disturbing episode where she scrapes gashes into their fancy dining table giving voice to her inner demons. McTeer's talent is exceptional, too good for the film in which she appears. This is Radcliffe's film, but every time she's on the screen, she grips your heart and tries to rip it out with her mania.
Her performance epitomizes the film's frightful nature. Instead of going for gruesome phantasmagoria, The Woman in Black is anchored by creaky interiors, light-starved hallways, ominous sounds and other standard creepy house motifs. Director James Watkins keeps these potentially hammy conceits reined tightly, never forcing the audience to roll their eyes in disbelief. A film like this hinges on how terrifying it can be without the need to resort to visceral chills. Watkins understands that necessity and holds back the more stomach churning details for late in the film and even then only uses them sparingly.
Watching this in the dark, especially in a crowded theater, is more likely to scare you than catching it during the bright light of day. The story is a bit far fetched at times, based on the novel by Susan Hill. Screenwriter Jane Goldman adapted the book adequaetly to the big screen, but neglects to give its supporting characters much more than perfunctory plotlines. Even Hinds' character seems more deep than he actually is, a credit to his acting capabilities. And for fans of the book, the film makes important changes to the narrative, even going so far as to re-write the film's final scene. Even with the differences, the finale will will jolt the audience. Goldman's ending is a bit clichéd and it's difficult not to see it coming, but it works for this type of movie.
Two key elements to the film's design are significantly important to its success. Marco Beltrami's simple score fields plenty of scares, but ratchets things back in some scenes, relying less on flashy compositions to sell the horror and more on hollow silences. The other element is Kave Quinn's delightfully dark house. Creating large spaces that still feel confining is a difficult task and Quinn, along with cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones make use of that tight construction to drag the viewer into its tense environment and making the house itself into its own character.
Haunted house stories have found great popularity and while this film doesn't hold a candle to the likes of The Innocents or The Others, we can thank those films for giving inspiration to future filmmakers. The Woman in Black's candle may not be as brightly lit, but it's just as easy to be snuffed out by a careless draft in an old house where everyone is afraid to go.
Potentials: Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing
July 6, 2012