Posts Tagged ‘The Woman in Black’

How very pleasant it is to have a Hammer production topping the UK movie charts, and rather unexpected too. That said, of course, the success of James Watkins’ The Woman in Black has probably less to do with residual affection for the House of Horror than the presence in it of Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from a certain other franchise which has received moderate financial success. Some people have described the Potter movies as ‘Hammer Horror for Kids’, which I don’t think is entirely fair to either J.K. Rowling’s work or the House, but the connection is perhaps responsible for the peculiar phenomenon of Radcliffe going on a round of appearances, supposedly to plug the movie, where he repeatedly warned people against taking their children to see it!

Being in the midst of studying for a diploma in teaching, the prospect of an atmosphere redolent in incipient dread and despair made a welcome change from one of actual dread and despair, and this, coupled to my long-time love of Hammer, made it pretty much a certainty that I’d be going along to see the new film. Based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name, this is the story of Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young solicitor in Edwardian London. Since the death of his wife in childbirth, he has been struggling to, as they say, keep things together, and is now given one last chance to show competence in his work. He is dispatched to a remote part of the north of England to sort out the paperwork of a recently-deceased elderly woman.

Harry Arthur soon discovers that a dreadful pall hangs over the area, centred on the old house his duties require him to work in. His presence is resented by the locals, who seem besieged by a succession of fatal accidents befalling their children – accidents they attribute to the baleful presence around the house of a spectral Woman in Black… Can Arthur complete his work in the house with his sanity intact? And, even worse, can he be in such close proximity to the source of the Woman in Black’s power without being somehow tainted by it himself?

James Watkins’ previous directing credit was Eden Lake, which was an authentically gruelling and properly nasty horror movie but by no means supernatural in its focus. The Woman in Black, on the other hand, is a proper spook story, very much in the classic vein. As a result, it has more than a few similarities with films like The Others and The Awakening, even to the point of repeating some of the same dramatic beats. Nevertheless, this is a superior addition to the genre for most of its running time.

Initially, though, the decision to employ Daniel Radcliffe’s formidable star-power seems like a mis-step – he looks rather too young for the part and is issued with some painfully non-Edwardian dialogue (‘Gotta rush! Don’t wanna miss the train!’ he pipes up with near the start). But, once a London swathed in dodgy CGI fog is left behind, the film fully immerses itself in the oppressively creepy atmosphere hinted at from the very first scenes.

As well as this chilly bleakness, the film benefits from the very solid three-act structure of Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Kipps’ encounters with the Woman in Black and the effects of her power grow longer and more intense as the film goes on and his comprehension of what is happening increases. That said, the fact that the film doesn’t solely consist of the main character rattling around inside an old house in the dark is also a strength.

To be perfectly honest Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t get a great deal to do beyond react and look strained for most of this movie, but he does this rather well. Also near the top of the cast list are Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer, who are both rather good in their individual ways. Liz White plays the title role, but I’ll be curious to see how much of this film ends up on her showreel…

It’s quite common in this kind of film for the ghostly manifestation to in some way be a metaphor for the main character’s own psychological issues or troubled past, but the movie avoids this idea along with many other cliches: the Woman in Black is wholly external, with her own story. Neither is she just a passive figure inadvertantly influencing anyone trespassing in her domain, but an active menace with her own very specific agenda.

And this is a scary film, with many shrink-back-in-your-seat or emit-a-soft-meep moments. Watkins orchestrates these rather well, as well as the film’s deeper source of disquiet. A previous TV version of this story was scripted by the great Nigel Kneale, and it seemed to me that some of his influence has filtered through into the movie – particularly his rigorously logical approach to the behaviour of supernatural forces. The slow realisation by both Kipps and the audience that the Woman in Black is not simply an unquiet spirit but an unstoppable, irrational force of vengeance is finely achieved, and the film’s most terrifying moment comes not from anything directly on the screen but a sudden understanding on the part of the viewer that Kipps has wholly misunderstood the nature of the Woman in Black…

It’s a fine moment, impressively subverting genre conventions while staying true to itself, which makes it all the more depressing when the film blows it in its final minute or so. An ending which looked like it was going to be ruthlessly dark and downbeat is, crudely, twisted so it ends up sentimental and soggy-headed.

The ending of this kind of film is, of course, the hardest part to get right – The Awakening fell down just as badly, if not worse – and there’s more than enough good stuff in the first 93 minutes or so to make this film very much worth a look. The Woman in Black is by no means a traditional Hammer horror (there’s a distinct lack of Kensington Gore and bare breasts), relying more on atmosphere to get its scares. But get them it definitely does.

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