REVIEW SUMMARY: Daniel Radcliffe’s first non-Potter movie is a listless, lifeless ghost story adapted from Susan Hill’s evocative novel.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Solicitor and widower Arthur Kipps arrives at the Nine Lives Causeway and the home of the recently deceased Alice Drablow to settle her legal affairs, where he learns of a menacing spirit that is believed to be causing the death of town children.
PROS: Good use of atmosphere, with a couple of effective shock sequences; a refreshing nearly complete absence of CGI.
CONS: Characters that never take on more than two dimensions; plodding pace; routine script and direction; far too reminiscent of other, better, more inspired ghost stories.
I’ve never been completely sure what it is about the Victorian Era that draws the ghost story. Maybe the sudden domination of the Industrial Revolution dovetailing with Darwinism drove people screaming to spiritualists and mediums in order to reorient themselves—a reaction to progress, which E.E. Cummings dubbed “a comfortable disease.” The characters in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, I’m sure, would have agreed with cummings, and so would the aristocrats in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, as well as those populating the tales of that other great James, M.R. With society rapidly fleeing its agrarian underpinnings in favor of the urban, as progress’s disease spread, tales in which the dead interact with the living probably offered some small, unchanging foothold solace, even if the incidents were horrifying. It explains not just the prevalence of such missives, but the large number of good ones.
Not that The Woman in Black is a good ghost story. It wants to be, and to director James Watkins credit he certainly tries to make this adaptation of Susan Hill’s elegant, evocative novel glow with a shadowy sheen, yet the movie never quite develops its own identity. It is generic in the worst possible sense, even if it never quite slips into cliché.
Could it have done better? Certainly. And it starts promisingly enough; three girls play with dolls and a tea set in a bedroom, and suddenly stop, open the bedroom window, and jump to their deaths…a haunting moment ruined as it fades to opening credits with a high-pitched scream and a distraught mother screaming, “My babies!” Such overkill sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Solicitor and widower Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) leaves his young son Joseph (Misha Handley) to travel to the Nine Lives Causeway after the death of his client Alice Drablow. He meets the local Daily (Ciarán Hinds) on the train, who gives him a lift into town, and there receives a frosty reception from the town’s innkeeper (Shaun Dooley) and other townsfolk. He visits the Drablow household, witnessing the eponymous woman of the title, and when he goes outside to confront her he hears the sound of a terrible accident in the nearby marshes, though sees no evidence of one having occurred. As he reports the incident to the constable a pair of fear-stricken children bring a friend into the constable’s office and begs for help. She has eaten lye, and dies in front of Kipps. Eventually he spends a night alone there, and the ghosts ratchet up their activity: rocking chairs creak without occupants, dead children claw their way from the ground and wander the marshes, and a distraught specter hangs herself before Kipps’s eyes.
After a while (it always amazes me that people, and specifically townspeople, in ghost stories never want to talk about what is haunting them; certainly this would save a lot of trouble for everybody) Kipps learns that the apparition behind all of this was unable to save her son from drowning and (for reasons never made clear) has cursed on the Nine Lives Causeway by causing children to die whenever she is seen.
The Woman in Black sounds exactly like the kind of movie Hammer used to make in its heyday. This is, in fact, Hammer’s first production since 2010’s competent if underwhelming Let Me In, and with their new feature they obviously want to revive their image as a premiere horror studio. And had Hammer made it in 1955, it likely would have been seen as the scariest movie of its year. But if they see The Woman in Black as their flagship, then it is an Ironclad, a throwback to a world that doesn’t know Cannibal Holocaust or Audition…or more recent supernatural takes like The Sixth Sense or The Others. Indeed, The Woman in Black’s mood and sense of dread most resemble The Others, though by focusing on pretty standard fare it adheres too closely to formula to make it stand out. Every technique James Watkins uses to deliver the shocks and chills, while proficient (and he deserves a good deal of credit for keeping the CGI to an absolute minimum), harkens back to early masters of craft such as Michael Carreras and John Gilling, and screenwriter Jane Goldman’s script, while hitting the right notes, never takes on the life of, say, the non-Hammer The Innocents. Some vital essence is missing.
Perhaps this explains the casting of Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter feature. Lean, with the piercing eyes and pointed chin that appear to mark his adulthood, he looks every bit the Victorian gentleman with familial concerns (though brief, his scenes with Misha Handley stand out), and his pale skin compliment all the supernatural trappings he endures. Producers likely saw him as a means of elevating the material. Unfortunately, he proves only as good as the material he’s given. The Harry Potter franchise allowed him the good fortune to work with a strong stable of veteran actors and young newcomers; The Woman in Black shows him unable to carry a movie.
Mostly, The Woman in Black feels like an artifact from another era, a tale heard many times before, not just by both Victorian ghost writers and Hammer Studios but by more recent filmmakers. Watching it, one thinks of a band recording a cover too faithful to the original. The Victorians loved the ghost tale, I think, because, in the end, they were triumphs of life over death. Ghosts aplenty suffuse the movie. More’s the pity that life never does.