Based on The Woman in Black (1989)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds
Written by Susan Hill (novel), Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Directed by James Watkins
The Woman in Black was on my radar for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a throwback to the days of old Hammer Horror films in which atmosphere and a brooding feeling of dread were paramount, rather than today’s focus on grisly violence and silly teenagers; however, saying that I prefer the former doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the latter. Secondly, the trailers made it seem like director James Watkins actually pulled off a very creepy and scary horror film. Finally, this film marks the entrance of Daniel Radcliffe onto the film scene after the decade-long box-office bonanza that was the Harry Potter series. Quite a few good reasons for me to check it out, but after the end credits rolled I was left a little unsatisfied. The Woman in Black had done some things very well, but it failed to live up to my expectations.
The film tells the story of a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who must travel to a small pastoral village on business; a wealthy old woman has died and someone must pore through her documents to try and find her most recent will. The townspeople are less than helpful regarding information about the deceased woman, Kipps even has trouble procuring a reasonably priced carriage ride to the secluded mansion. The townspeople seem afraid of the old estate, but about what specifically, is uncertain. Kipps battles his nerves as he spends time in the old dusty mansion, as well as haunting memories about his wife, who died giving birth to their only son. But this is just the beginning of Kipps’ problems as he becomes involved in some dangerous events threatening the lives of the village children, not to mention the strange moments in the dead of the night when he witnesses the appearance of an apparition hiding in the shadows – the woman in black.
The idea behind The Woman in Black is so much more appealing than the finished product. In today’s age of relentless action, over-the-top CGI, and surprise convoluted endings that can make a Scottish Highland road seem straight, an atmospheric horror film may be exactly what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, while The Woman in Black features some excellent cinematography, setting the scene for a ghostly good time, the narrative is not even remotely interesting, let alone spooky. Yes, the film establishes an evil and mysterious force, the woman in black, and an innocent and duly skeptical lead in Kipps, but at no point will the viewer feel as lost, confused or as frightened as Kipps regarding the mystery of the mansion. The story arc is just too unimaginative, too relaxed, and despite the supernatural subject matter, too mundane.
As I’ve said, many of the visuals in the film are a delight to the eyes, the cinematographer has done their job well. Also, many of the performances, including those by Radcliffe and Hinds, are quite solid. Radcliffe can rest easy knowing that audiences will be able to accept him as someone other than the scourge of Voldemort. However, it would appear that The Woman in Black had problems at the conceptual stages, or perhaps someone completely ripped apart the script before filming. If you’re looking for an atmospheric horror film, revisit The Changeling, or some old Hammer films. Leave this one alone, it doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to be.