Film review: The Woman in Black

Will Brooker is disappointed by an old-fashioned ghost tale that lacks the spirit of its superior source

February 9, 2012

The Woman in Black

Directed by James Watkins

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer and Liz White

Released in the UK on 10 February

Crythin Gifford, a small market town at an unspecified location in the North East of England in an unspecified decade of the 20th century, is a remote place, sealed off by thick fog and lacking modern conveniences. Its largest house, at Eel Marsh, has no electricity and relies on candles. Even its richest landowner has no telephone. All messages, as young solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is firmly told when he visits to resolve the matter of a local woman's estate, must be sent by telegraph.

And telegraphed they are. The film signals its shocks and scares in the most traditional ways, drawing on an old-fashioned horror vocabulary. As Kipps approaches the house at Eel Marsh, we see it from his point of view, with a shaky, handheld camera conveying his hesitation. He is gazed at by children with the eerie faces of porcelain dolls, and in turn by dolls with the eerie porcelain faces of children. The first mention of the woman's dead son is punctuated by high-pitched strings. Every exploration of the old house is undertaken in near silence, against a whispering soundtrack of rapid breaths, so it can be broken by a sudden close-up or scream. Essentially, despite the baroque surround of its family secrets and a few twists, the story comes down to a straightforward dare: spend a night alone in the haunted house.

The narrative requirement that Kipps must stay alone, of course, means that he is the only character on screen for long periods at a time. This is a substantial responsibility for young shoulders, and though Radcliffe has filled out into a solid 22-year-old who grows a few days' stubble during the course of the film, he never quite convinces. In his three-piece suit, clasping a pocket watch, he looks like a boy dressed up for the school play rather than a widower with a young son. After 10 years of facing off against Voldemort and the Death Eaters, he has a well-practised haunted, troubled expression, but comes across as a pink-eyed, pale White Rabbit in the sinister Wonderland of Eel House, with its grotesque wind-up toys, spooky portraits and blood-scrawled messages. You still expect him to turn to Professor Dumbledore for help, or to hear a gruff voice awarding "10 points for Gryffindor" as he completes each challenge. A corny coda on a supernatural railway station, with the platform to London again signifying limbo and the afterlife as it did in last year's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, doesn't help.

The film has something to say - something that it inherits, and does not fully exorcise, from Susan Hill's superior novel - about rationality versus the unknown. The film's horrors, ironically, are far more literal here than in Hill's original, which tries to make sense of uncanny events through Kipps' mundane first-person narration. The film gives this reasoned voice not to the more credulous Kipps but to Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a bluff sceptic who, driving Crythin Gifford's first-ever Rolls-Royce through crowds of superstitious villagers, is a force of technological modernity.

As even Daily's bold cynicism is overwhelmed by the thick fog and night terrors brought by the Woman in Black, a generous viewer could read the film as an examination of the way in which the 20th century remained haunted by Victorian culture and beliefs. A passing nod to Arthur Kipps' namesake, Conan Doyle, recalls the exploration of spiritualism in Julian Barnes' novel Arthur and George (2005), and the great rationalist Sherlock Holmes' theory that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.

The film has something to say along these lines, but perhaps, disappointingly, not much. The meta-terror of the stage adaptation, where the eponymous figure breaks through boundaries of fiction and performance to invade the contemporary theatre, is reduced to a standard plot twist; and as the film in turn reduces its two main female characters to the most basic of Victorian binaries - the angelic mother in white and the bad mother in black - its symbolism, ultimately, is simpler and cruder than anything in Harry Potter.

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