By Marty Mulrooney
The Woman In Black is a horror film directed by James Watkins, based on the classic Susan Hill novel of the same name. Set during the Edwardian era, it is produced by Hammer Film Productions and stars Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor who is sent to the English coast to attend to the estate of a woman named Alice Drablow who has recently died. Once there, he must travel to Eel Marsh House, located near dense marshes and cut off from the mainland during high tide. Attending to paperwork, he captures glimpses of a mysterious woman in black. The locals in the nearby town seem frightened and their children even more so. What could possibly have the power to terrify so greatly? Soon, Arthur Kipps will find out…
The Woman In Black is regarded by many as one of the most chilling ghost stories of all time – the 1983 novel possesses a timeless quality that still has the power to scare to this very day. The stage play adaptation (reviewed on AMO here) has been running since 1987, continually thrilling critics and audiences alike. ITV also aired a television version in 1989 that was nominated for four BAFTA awards. This new film adaptation takes the book as its inspiration (the stage play made several notable additions to the story), but by no means is this a straight-up retelling. Jane Goldman’s script makes several changes to a familiar tale, some welcome, others less so.
Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from filming the final Harry Potter film, makes a pleasing Kipps, though he does appear slightly too young to be the father of a four-year-old boy. Nonetheless, he looks the part and plays it well. The plot point of a son who needs supporting after his mother’s death also gives incentive for Kipps to not only make the journey to Eel Marsh House, but keep returning despite the ghostly apparitions he witnesses. Everyone acts their parts well, although some of the supporting cast can seem slightly hammy at times in their depictions of regular folk who live their lives in fear of something they don’t fully understand.
The main problem is that the original story, rich in detail, is told in a perfunctory manner. There are scary moments aplenty, good old-fashioned scares that don’t need to rely on gore. The special effects are subtle and Eel Marsh House itself is a master of both sound and visual design. Yet authentic relationships between the characters are largely absent. Being alone in Eel Marsh House is a terrifying thought – in both the book and play, the company of a dog or a fellow human being offers welcome respite from this fear, however momentary and fleeting. The dog still makes an appearance and Ciarán Hinds as wealthy landowner Sam Daily is likeable enough, but the opportunity to show Kipps truly bonding with these characters is ultimately missed.
Instead, the film relies on the concept of a haunted house brought to life. Doors lock themselves, chairs rock back and forth and candles blow out. Creepy children’s toys stare with dull eyes, screaming inwardly as their mechanical insides whir tinkling lullabies of death. The woman in black is most terrifying when she simply appears in the frame, watching. Waiting. When the filmmakers have her float towards Daniel Radcliffe, open mouthed and screaming, they get a reaction, but it’s cheap. Isn’t causing the death of innocent children horrifying enough? Hammer Film Productions reportedly shaved 6 seconds of footage from The Woman In Black to lower the rating from a 15 to a 12A in the UK. This move is very telling – there is no doubt a better film lurking, much like the woman in black, within this production. It caters too much to the mainstream and makes concessions for the easily pleased, but when it works, it’s eerie and effective.
The Woman In Black, despite the negatives expressed in this review, is not a bad film at all. Visually, it captures the source material extremely well and there are several moments that successfully bring the spirit of the book to life. Daniel Radcliffe proves that there is more to his acting than just Harry Potter, and the new ending is surprisingly effective, able to be viewed in several different ways. Its a good film, but it could have done with more mystery and uncertainty to it. This is a motion picture that deals predominantly with death – in the end, it just needed a little bit more life.
7.5 OUT OF 10