Review – The Woman in Black
2012, 95 mins, 12A, Dir. James Watkins, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and Ciàran Hinds
Among the first of the new Hammer Horror feature productions, The Woman in Black, the first major film adaptation of Susan Hill’s period ghost story, has recently become the most successful British horror (in terms of domestic box office) of all time. And why not? It’s written by Jane Goldman, now one of the most sought-after Hollywood screenwriters, and features that kid from that really popular franchise, you know, the one with the wizards. Cleverly marketed as a 12A, it’s managed to fend off rather stale opposition to achieve £14 million in the UK thus far – and it’s only been three weeks. Clearly it’s got a market, but with a lead who still looks 18, how does it actually fare up?
I’ve had the privilege in the last few years of both reading the novel and experiencing the utterly terrifying London play, which has now been running for twenty-three years. Hill’s story was slow-burning, tremendously subtle and very chilling; the play was certainly a surprise in terms of the level of terror inflicted upon the hapless audience. I therefore had high expectations for this adaptation and hoped that it would be faithful to its source material.
The film starts eerily well and the tension slowly begins to rise as young solicitor Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) travels to the country town of Crythin Gifford to sort out the papers of a recently deceased old lady; the locals, for some reason, seem very reluctant to speak to him, especially not of that old, dejected house on the marshes. Kipps discovers to his horror that there is a lot of history to this house, and to its previous occupants.
The film ultimately turns out be quite different from the story’s previous incarnations. For one thing, there is more shock value, more ‘jump’ moments thrown in for the displeasure of the viewer. Where the novel was slow and subtle in revealing the malevolent nature of its antagonist, the eponymous ‘Woman in Black’, the film bounces along with the occasional sudden knocking of an object or appearance of a character, and just misses the mark in terms of how scary it should be.
Many of these sudden shocks occur in an extended sequence midway in the film – Kipps, trapped in Eel Marsh House, has one hell of a night chasing shadows and noises in the cavernous place. In one particularly memorable scene, he slowly travels down the darkened corridor towards a rocking sound coming from a previously closed door. It’s very suspenseful and perhaps the highlight of the film.
Yet the ghost of the woman herself is underused. Where, even in the play, she is seen for extended periods, in this cinematic excursion she is reduced to mere glimpses of the main character. It doesn’t add to the mystique of the woman. The focus is on the house and what it does to Kipps, the visions that emanate from it; and since a lot of the time and energy is devoted to shock tactics, barely any attention is given to the plot. As a result, it is frustratingly shallow; the vengeance of the title character seems worthless at times.
Not only that, but the lead is miscast. While Daniel Radcliffe has certainly been a major part of the film’s success, he really isn’t very good. You do want him to succeed and you can see the effort he makes, mainly by the fact that he keeps his mouth shut throughout the film, but he simply is not convincing playing a widower with a four-year-old son. Even ignoring his acting ability in itself, he looks far too young and any attempts to age him are in vain.
It is redeemed a little by its excellent locations and strong supporting cast (Ciàran Hinds is particularly notable). The jump scenes are admittedly disconcerting, but ultimately The Woman in Black strays disappointingly far from its literary origins. Commercial performance is important, but the kind of horror that is witnessed in this film is of-the-moment and immediate. That’s what is popular with audiences today, but does it stick with you? That brooding character of the novel, that force of evil that infects every page, is something that plays on your mind, that taunts you as you read Hill’s intricate description, and certainly something that lasts. I’m happy (or perhaps lukewarm) that it has done so well and audiences seem to love it, but the sense of inferiority, to me, is not ignorable.
Go and read the book – or if you’re feeling lazy, see the stage play – and marvel at the infinitely more terrifying depictions of the woman in black.
2 stars out of 5