Dir. James Watkins, UK/Canada/ Sweden 2011, 95 mins
Review by Eva Moravetz
Ever since Susan Hill’s bestselling novel The Woman In Black was published in 1982, it has been brought to life many times across a variety of media. It was adapted into a TV movie, a radio series, a stage play and now a feature film – its script in the making for some years. Acclaimed director James Watkins (Eden Lake) found screenwriter Jane Goldman (X-Men: First Class) the perfect candidate to carry out the difficult task of adapting the book for the screen – an undertaking that had presented a lot of hurdles for other screenwriters. Goldman has made some changes to the original story but still manages to be truthful to the book and its author. Out of these efforts an intelligent and fresh Victorian Gothic horror film has been born, which provides us with plenty of frights and strong emotional undercurrents.
Recently widowed young solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) leaves his four-year old son behind in London and travels north to Crythin Gifford, a remote village, to sort out the affairs of the deceased owner of a mansion. On arrival, the innkeeper tells him that the best thing he could do is to turn around and go back home. It seems that all the locals harbour dark and tragic secrets. This also includes Mr Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a landowner Arthur has made friends with on the train. Arthur, distraught and bereaved though he is, decides to stay anyway and get on with his job. He gets a lift to the ominous and deserted Eel Marsh House and begins going through the papers of its dead owner. He quickly realises, however, that cobwebs and crow’s nests are not his only companions and his own shadow is not the only projection on the walls. In the meantime, strange deaths start to occur in the village one after the other and Arthur frequently sees the figure of a spectre, a woman dressed in black.
The Woman In Black kind of represents a double rebirth; one of its film studio, the recently revived legendary Hammer Films and the other one of its star, Daniel Radcliffe, who has worked hard to shed his boy wizard image from the Harry Potter series. Radcliffe is an intelligent, instinctive and focussed actor who makes Arthur totally believable. He has an emotional maturity that belies his age and an understanding of character that makes his performance all the more serious. Arthur’s bereavement makes him so out of touch with reality and disconnected from people that his sensations of the supernatural seem to happen as obvious side effects of his mental and emotional state. Part of the eeriness of the film is the idea that extreme emotions can make us susceptible to the perceptions of other realities, opening a gateway to the dead. Or is it just our imagination?
The Woman In Black is an economically told story and in terms of horror elements it strives to be minimalist, which makes it even scarier. Similarly to Japanese horror, less is more effective and terrifying. There are strange noises and movements; shadowy corridors and dark corners; a lot of contrasts. We are usually seeing things from Arthur’s point of view. The cinematography is stunning using a wide aspect ratio characteristic of Westerns rather than claustrophobic ghost stories but it works effectively here. Thanks to production designer Kave Quinn, the film has a rich look; lots of decaying colours, dark purples, reds and black and the Jacobean mansion used as Eel Marsh House is a truly haunting spectacle. What makes this film so evocative is the simplicity of the story, the richness of the décor and the intense emotional atmosphere combined with sensory perceptions of tragedy and evil. It’s well worth a watch.