Having watched, like millions of other people, all of the films in the Harry Potter series, I saw actor Daniel Radcliffe literally grow up before my eyes. In the movie, “The Woman in Black,” his first adult film role after playing the iconic character of Harry Potter, Radcliffe acquits himself well in the role of solicitor Arthur Kipps. I’ve already spoken to a few fellow cinephiles who take issue with Radcliffe’s occupation in the movie due to his age, but Jane Goldman’s (X-Men: First Class) screenplay based upon the 1983 novel by Susan Hill (The Bird of the Night) is historically accurate. The film takes place in Britain in the early 20th century when a man who has reached the age of twenty-two could very well have been married, a father, and working in a profession such as law. (As an aside: This isn’t the first time Hill’s novel has been filmed; in 1989 “The Woman in Black” was adapted into a movie for television, and it also is the second-longest running stage play in London’s West End).
The ninety-five minute film is directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake). The movie is a well done, old-fashioned ghost-story that utilizes the latest technology, but also effectively uses familiar archetypes of British horror, especially the ones that pertain to the haunted-house genre. For example, poorly lit corridors whose shadows play mind games with the hero or heroine who has to traverse them, flickering candles, and of course the vengeful ghost or monster (in this film ghost) who is out to wreak carnage.
After a prologue rife with tragedy that involved the triple-suicide of three young girls, we meet Radcliffe’s character of Kipps who is still struggling with his own loss, that of his wife during childbirth four years earlier. He is on the precipice of losing his job and is given one last chance by his employer, Mr. Bentley, played by Roger Allam, to journey to the home of the firm’s recently deceased client, Alice Drablow, in order to settle her estate. When Kipps arrives at the remote coastal village, he finds that people treat him in a hostile manner, as if he is a plague carrier out to destroy them, and they are increasingly anxious for him to depart their village. Radcliffe’s character is a man on a mission who will not be deterred. He goes to the house to begin his task of sifting through the hefty amount of paper work looking for particular documents.
The house, known as the Eel Marsh House, is said to be haunted by the “Woman in Black.” She has been cemented into the foundation of local legend; it is said that her appearance signals the imminent death of one of the villagers’ children. The ghostly spirit is utilized in a very effective manner due to her ability to scare through well done materialization. For example, she sometimes appears in a frenetic paced, alarming way, while at other times, director Watkins allows the tension to build, which makes the woman in black’s arrival more impactful. Her blood lust for children, and the inflicting of emotional rather than physical harm to adults, when combined with her single-minded mission of vengeance, makes for a powerful screen entity of evil that is not soon forgotten.
Adding nicely to the sense of foreboding, the marshland house the ghost haunts stands apart from the rest of the village. In fact, the only road connecting the property to the outside world is a winding one that can only be crossed at certain times of day due to floods caused by high tides. Soon after arriving at the house, Kipps spots a woman veiled in black lurking in the graveyard outside of the home; he goes outside to confront her and of course she is nowhere to be found. Afterwards, children in the village begin dying from apparent suicides; Kipps, whose own son is on his way by train to see him, begins to attempt to discover the motives behind the ghost’s unending need for revenge in an effort to stop it. From that moment on the film become an old-fashioned scare fest that should keep viewers interested until its final haunting frame.
The film was released on February 3, 2012, and budgeted for an estimated seventeen million dollars. The movie features a fine supporting cast; the notable stand outs are Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) who embodies the role of ghost skeptic Samuel Daily. Portraying his wife is Janet McTeer, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for the film “Albert Nobbs.” She delivers an impressive performance as a seemingly unbalanced mother, who can’t come to terms with the death of her son. Also in the mix is Liz White as the shrieking, revenge minded title character. ( As an aside: Daniel Radcliffe’s real life Godson, Misha Handley plays his son Joseph in the movie. Other highlights of the film include a cleverly composed score written by Marco Beltrami (The Hurt Locker) which provides just the right amount of tension and underlying fear, and the murky landscape created by cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones (Snatch).
Despite the fact that Radcliffe’s character is given ample dialogue, a great deal of his performance is spent walking down hallways, exploring creepy rooms replete with demonic looking toys, and chasing apparitions that he thinks he sees walking out in the fog of the marsh or hiding in the shadows of the house. None of Radcliffe’s performance is exaggerated with disingenuous facial expressions. He conveys through his eyes a wide range of emotions such as fear, grief, and surprise. The movie is not about cheap thrills nor is it a splatter fest; it is, however, a mood piece that is dark, contains gloomy atmosphere, haunting imagery, and enough frightful moments that will stick with you once the credits have finished rolling.