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Review: The Woman in Black

Harry Potter and the Stubble of Men

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer

Director: James Watkins

Screenplay: Jane Goldman (from the novel by Susan Hill)

‘Please don’t go to Eel Marsh House.’

When young lawyer Arthur Kipps is sent to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of recently deceased widow Alice Drablow, he discovers a township gripped by fear. After spending a night in Mrs. Drablow’s Eel Marsh House, Arthur begins to unearth the truth behind a series of apparent child suicides and attracts the attention of a vengeful ghost.

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has enjoyed a wonderful shelf life since its publication in 1983.  An old fashioned ghost story in the spirit of M.R. James, it has spawned a successful stage play, now  in its 25th year, and numerous radio adaptations. In 1989 a British television movie was commissioned and broadcast on Christmas Eve which for many, myself included, remains one of the finest ghost story movies ever made. Now The Woman in Black has finally made it to the big screen, under the care of the newly reborn Hammer studios, with some big shoes to fill.

I was excited about this one since I am a big fan of the book, the play and the earlier movie. Of course, everyone else seems to be more excited about seeing Daniel Radcliffe without that stupid scar on his noggin and being all-grown-up-now, but whatever floats your boat or sells your movie. As someone left scratching his head on the dock while the great Harry Potter ship sailed off into history, I was able to enjoy The Woman in Black without that particular distraction. Unfortunately, I had a distraction of a different kind. My advice to you is go and see this movie in a cinema with good sound proofing. Or, failing that, go to a cinema that isn’t showing The Muppets in the adjacent screen. Nothing kills the atmosphere of a man quietly exploring an old, dark house like the distant sound of Gonzo’s singing chickens. Pretty sure they weren’t in the novel.

These days the simple ghost story is becoming something of an endangered species, mostly kept alive by Asian cinema and American ‘found footage’ movies, which is a shame. Modern audiences, happily fed on a diet of endless Saw and Final Destination sequels only seem to react to horror movies that beat them over the head, rather than something that takes the time to try and get under their skin. The YouTube generation aren’t interested in something that doesn’t shout or satisfy within three minutes. So James Watkins, whose previous effort, Eden Lake, had the far easier task of making teenagers scary, could easily have been tempted to betray the slow-build subtleties of the source material. Luckily, he hasn’t.

Daniel discovers that the stairs don’t move here and Emma Watson isn’t going to save his ass.

In a departure from the source material, Radcliffe’s Arthur is not a happy, eager young man with a loving family but a grieving widower, unable to let go of the wife who died giving birth to his son. It is a peculiar change but one that ultimately ties into the film’s resolution, also altered from the novel. It’s a bit of a stretch to accept Daniel Radcliffe as a father, no matter how much stubble he grows, but he wholeheartedly throws himself into a role which often requires little of him but to look miserable/tired/scared (*delete as applicable) at the appropriate moments.

The town of Crythin Gifford is smartly realised; small, gloomy and unwelcoming in the best tradition of the ghost story, and the central setting of Eel Marsh House is wonderfully spooky. It is within the confines of this house that The Woman in Black begins to do its work as Arthur is subjected to an escalating series of creepy encounters while he pieces together the story behind the haunting. Watkins builds the tension slowly, giving us only fleeting glimpses of the figure behind it all while never letting us forget that she is always present, if not visible. And, contrary to the novel, the apparitions are not limited to the woman herself, although this does sometimes seem a little like overkill.

Where The Woman in Black most falls down is in a third act that slips too much into needless sentiment, providing Arthur with a cosy, heart-warming character arc at the expense of what should have been the ghost’s unrelenting malevolence. In all fairness, it’s not a complete disaster and actually provides a pretty clever twist, but even so it stinks of a disappointing desire to provide the audience with a resolution to the story which won’t be too bleak for them. And I like my ghost stories with a sting in the tail.

All in all, The Woman in Black is a worthy attempt to bring the story to the big screen. However, my recommendation would still be to seek out the 1989 Granada Television version if you only intend to see the story once.

4 STARS