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THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Theatrical

The Woman in BlackOf all the films in the Hammer revival, this has been the most anticipated, either because it promised a return to the gothic trappings that the studio was known for or simply because it offered Harry Potter fans a chance to see their hero in something new. The film also comes with the baggage of being based on a novel, a stage play, a TV movie and even radio versions, all of which have their admirers. So the film has a lot to live up to, and it’s unsurprising that it sometimes seems to be struggling with the weight of its own expectations.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young widowed lawyer around the turn of the (20th) century who is sent to a small Northern town to sort the affairs of a recently deceased woman. On arrival, Kripps is treated with suspicion and hostility from the locals, who are keen to send him back to London as soon as possible. It soon transpires that they believe Eel Marsh House, his ultimate destination, to be haunted by a mysterious woman in black whose appearance is always followed by the violent, suicidal death of a local child. And sure enough, on his arrival at the house, he experiences spooky noises, strange apparitions and other ghostly events. Investigating further, he uncovers the tragedy at the heart of this mystery, and determines to lay the ghost to rest before the vengeful Woman in Black takes the lives of any more children – especially as his four year old son is about to arrive for a visit.

There is much to admire in The Woman in Black. In many ways, it feels like the sort of film you would expect Hammer to be making, had the studio kept going beyond the 1970s – handsomely mounted, atmospheric and decidedly creepy. I’m not particularly familiar with other versions of this story, but most changes made here seem effective in terms of story-telling (and one scene that I found a bit iffy was, I’m told, in the original novel). Director James Wakins keeps things moving along, never allowing the film to slip into the overly slow pace that sometimes makes ghost stories heavy going, but also avoiding the GCI overkill of lamentable stuff like The Haunting remake. The clichés and set-pieces of ghost stories are by now well-established, and Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman make the sensible choice of not trying to subvert or escape those clichés but instead embrace them, perhaps knowing that an entire generation of filmgoers are probably not that familiar with these images. Hence, we get lights shutting down to announce the approach of the ghost, empty rocking chairs briefly being occupied, mysterious figures seen standing outside the house and more… as well as the creepiest clockwork toys you’ll ever see.

The Woman in BlackIf there is a problem, it’s that Watkins doesn’t stick to his self-professed ‘less is more’ approach. A couple of haunting scenes pile on the shocks relentlessly, and on a couple of occasions show the ghost far too explicitly, and with far too much scary-face imagery involved - highly effective in J-horror, considerably less so here. Subtlety goes out of the window in these scenes, and it’s a pity.

As for Daniel Radcliffe – there’s an undoubted problem. His performance is pretty good – quiet, haunted long before he reaches the house and able to express both terror and steely determination. Unfortunately, he’s also about ten years too young, and that does cause a problem of believability. It’s possible that the 22-year old actor could play a Victorian lawyer and father of a four year old boy, of course – but not entirely plausible. And having him play scenes with the towering Ciaran Hinds does rather make him look like a small boy. It’s to Radcliffe’s credit that he is able make his character believable and sympathetic, but this does feel a little like a case of casting being made more with the box office than the story in mind.

However, these points aside, The Woman in Black remains a very effective ghost story that generally does what it sets out to do without ever breaking the mould or offering a new twist on the genre. Complete with an ending that will definitely split opinion, it’s a welcome cinematic return to the classic ghost story, and the classic Hammer horror.

DAVID FLINT

 

 

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