And so it begins. Daniel Radcliffe’s move away from Harry Potter, and his first leading role in a post-Potter world comes in the form of The Woman In Black, a well-intentioned and impressively mounted amusement park ride of scares and tension. The subject matter is decidedly grim and will serve as tonally unpleasant to some viewers, but The Woman In Black is a film which takes great delight in reinventing the tired old jump scares that have ruined many a suspenseful horror film and coasts by on a solid performance by Radcliffe and strong supporting performances from Janet McTeer and Ciaran Hinds among others.
There are those who will already be familiar with The Woman In Black as the story first appeared in a 1983 book by Susan Hill. Later, Hill’s book was adapted into a stage play which began in 1987 and moved to London’s West End in 1989, where it is still running as of February 2012. The Woman In Black has also been fashioned as a British TV movie in 1989 and remade as a radio broadcast several times on the BBC family of radio networks. People seem to be drawn to and love this story.
That story revolves around a turn-of-the-century lawyer (Radcliffe)named Arthur Kipps, who is given the chance to prove his worth to his law firm when he is sent to a remote mansion to go through the documentation left behind by the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Kipps, a widow, leaves behind his 4-year old son to stay with his nanny, with the understanding that they will join him after a few days of Arthur completing his research on Drablow’s affairs. When he arrives at the nearby town of Crythin Gifford, prior to setting off to the storied mansion, things seem strange.
He has already turned down an invitation to stay with the Dailys, Arthur meeting Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) previously on the train, and when he asks for a room at the Crythin Gifford Inn (that is an assumed name, by the way), he is rebuffed rudely by its owner, Mr. Fisher. When the owner’s wife comes down the stairs, she offers Arthur the attic, which as have seen in a prologue to the film, carries its own sinister and tragic history.
Once at the mansion, Arthur begins his work and begins hearing strange noises. We have all experienced the unsettling pings and grunts of a house settling, but this are more menacing and pervasive. Arthur stops his work and seeks out the source of the noises and director James Watkins and Jane Goldman’s screenplay bank their success on a series of surprises and jump scares to try and make us experience the discomfort that Arthur is experiencing. With no one else to really speak with, Arthur internalizes what he is going through until a look at the window finds him staring at a cloaked woman near the marsh which runs outside and around the mansion’s desolate location.
Suddenly, terrible things begin happening to the children of Crythin Gifford. Arthur learns the details behind the sadness which envelopes the Inn’s owners and has a young girl die in his arms after inexplicably ingesting lye. Everyone begins to question and accelerate animosity and anger towards Arthur and when he reconnects and finds a kindness in Sam Daily, he learns of a tragic loss the Dailys endured and Sam’s wife (Janet McTeer) alternates between tempered calmness and uncontrollable and otherworldly possession. Everyone asks Arthur if he has seen the Woman In Black. But why? What does it all mean?
There is not a whole lot of story with The Woman In Black, which is understandable when noting that the play that this film is, in part, adapted from has just two people on stage for the entire performance. This is intended to be an insular and withdrawn piece and in all honesty, Jane Goldman has padded things out well enough. James Watkins relies a bit too frequently on the obviousness of the setting that Arthur finds himself in and after awhile, this shot and that noise and this image and that situation all verge on contrived repetitiveness.
What keeps The Woman In Black afloat is a good Potter-distancing turn by Daniel Radcliffe, who I am pleased to report, may not be as weighed down by the Harry Potter albatross as I feared he would be. I mean, there is not a whole lot of range on display here but Radcliffe is talented and much of his intuitiveness and non-verbal acting is on point. The caricatures which comprise Crythin Gifford are simply panicked and weepy characters we have seen innumerable times before, but Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer are best in show here as a married couple desperately trying to stay away from the mob-like hyperbole, but very real tragedy, that continually devastates their community.
At the end of the day, The Woman In Black is a serviceable, if not slight, horror film. The subject matter of children dying lends itself to some bold and uncomfortable imagery but in its final presentation, the actual scares here amount to little more than a well-crafted and executed amusement park ride where this corner may lead to something popping out in front of you and that corner may not.
I enjoyed The Woman In Black and sure, I wished it had more inventiveness at times. However, in terms of defining Daniel Radcliffe as a good actor and with tremendous technical achievement in the realm of art and set decoration and costume design, The Woman In Black is a movie that will please those who like the idea of being scared, but just a little bit, and not a whole lot.