Friday, February 10, 2012

The Woman in Black

Director James Watkins has taken on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel “The Woman in Black” and made quite an efficient horror film out of it. The novel has already been made into a successful television film and a stage play, that is the second longest-running in the history of London’s West End, and now good old Hammer Film Production has made it into a film. To me Hammer equals horror. It makes me think of their many films about Frankenstein, Dracula and the Mummy not to mention their “Hammer House of Horror” series. But where the previous productions all had an air of kitschy B-movie about them – that was their charm so to speak - “The Woman in Black” is a 100% quality film.

In many ways the film version of “The Woman in Black” is a classic Victorian ghost story, although it takes place in the Edwardian era. It tells the story of the lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who lives in London with his four-year-old son as his wife has died after childbirth. Kipps has financial problems and is assigned to handle the estate of Alice Drablow who owned the desolate and secluded Eel Marsh House, where she had lived with her husband, son Nathaniel, and sister, Jennet Humfrye (Liz White). The house is situated near the small town Crythin Gifford, but it is completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, as it is surrounded by marshes. When Kipps arrive at Crythin Gifford, the locals are very hostile and try to make him leave immediately. Only the innkeeper’s wife Mrs. Fisher (Mary Stockley), the landowner Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) and his wife (Janet McTeer) show Kipps some kindness. While sorting through Mrs Drablow's papers at Eel Marsh House, Kipps experiences an increasing amount of terrifying noises and chilling events and gradually he comes to realise that the house and the town is haunted by an evil spirit that takes its revenge by killing young children.

The plot of the film is rather transparent, at least I figured it out in less than fifteen minutes, but still the story is a creepy, scary, chilling one with many a shock in store. Not for the fainthearted for sure as there is a reason why it is rated “suitable only for 15 years or older”. The film makes heavy use of jump scares, though, which is a bit annoying, as it isn’t needed. The story itself is chilling enough on its own, but I suppose Watkins has wanted to make sure that the audience’s blood pressure is raised most of the time. The film also has a rather dodgy ending where Kipps seems unsuitably happy about the way things turn out. Here scriptwriter Jane Goldman has made a serious a faux pas by turning the tragic ending of the novel into a very strange, happy one where Kipps’ joy totally contradicts the whole premise of the story.

“The Woman in Black” is Daniel Radcliffe’s first film after his decade of portraying Harry Potter and that is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Why? Because in the 1989 television version of “The Woman in Black” it was Adrian Rawlins who played the haunted lawyer and in the Harry Potter films Rawlins was - of course - James Potter, Harry Potter’s dad. In a ghost story about parents and sons, it is a bit funny to let Radcliffe take over his film-father’s old part. I haven’t seen the television version, but I’m pretty sure that Radcliffe outshines his “dad”. Radcliffe is what? Twenty-two? In the last Harry Potter film he was supposed to be seventeen and now in “The Woman in Black” he’s a thirty-something family man and he’s convincing. When watching “The Woman in Black” you don’t think about Harry Potter, you don’t think about age, you are just wholly absorbed in the portrait that Radcliffe paints of Arthur Kipps. Because don’t get this wrong. No matter how chilling “The Woman in Black” is, it is not just a ghost story, it is also a one man show. The film IS Radcliffe as all the other actors are just necessary but almost invisible supporting cast members and you don’t really remember their performances afterwards. You do with Radcliffe. Despite his young age, he is an extremely talented actor, in my opinion one of the best in the world at the moment, and I hope to see a lot more from him in years to come.

The film runs a short 95 minutes.
Three out of five stars: *** (but five to Daniel Radcliffe!)


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