Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White and Sophie Stuckey.
Writer: Jane Goldman
Director: James Watkins
Running time: 95 minutes.
James Watkins’ richly-realised, thematically-compelling ghost story, The Woman in Black, examines the notion that the haunted man’s true home is a haunted house. The tortured, grief-ridden soul of widower Daniel Radcliffe manifests as an isolated, dilapidated mansion that was once home to the joyful yelps of children. But darkness now lives there, and Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps is enveloped in her shroud.
If that seems like a terribly melodramatic way to introduce the review for a 2012 chiller that chronicles spectral malevolence, just wait until you see the film. Watkins, who impressed mightily with the nihilistic slasher romp Eden Lake, embraces the ethos and legacy of the films’ legendary production outfit, Hammer Films, to deliver a creaky-door/squeaky-floorboard haunted house picture that builds to a suitably scary climax (with a melancholy twist, to boot).
Kipps is a second-tier lawyer at a big London firm in turn-of-the-20th-century England. He is struggling to raise his 4 year-old son Joseph (Misha Handley), having lost his wife Stella (Sophie Stuckey, in ethereal form) during childbirth. With his job on the line, he accepts an assignment to travel to the gloomy coastal village of Crythin Gifford to bring order to the estate of the late Alice Drabow. Her home, known as Eel Marsh House, was a shuttered gothic two-storey dwelling which Kipps inhabits whilst on assignment.
But all is not right. The villagers are wary of him; the house echoes with the disembodied laughter of long-absent children. Tragedy continues to befall the little ones of Crythin Gifford, and Kipps is soon convinced a darkly-cloaked vision he keeps witnessing on the grounds and in the corridors of Eel Marsh may hold the secret to the township’s ongoing dread. With new friend Daily (an authorative Ciarán Hinds), himself coping with the loss of a young son and the subsequent mental deterioration of his wife, Elizabeth (a loopy Janet McTeer), Kipps applies his analytical powers to deduce the secret of Drablow House and end the terrifying reign of the Woman in Black.
Of course, the real mystery is – can Daniel Radcliffe, sans the dorky glasses and lightning-bolt scar permanently creasing his forehead, carry a film playing an adult? Admittedly, this isn’t Hamlet; he spends the vast amount of his on-screen time holding candles and peering into dark corners before being startled. But, yes, he makes for a compelling, sympathetic presence in a film that asks him to project sadness, maturity, desperation and longing. In that regard, he captures the essence of Watkins’ film splendidly, which maximises both the genre tropes and deeper emotions of Jane Goldman’s sparse but assured script (a fine adaptation of Sarah Hill’s 1983 novel).
But the true star, and rightly so, is the hooded rotting facade of Jennet Humfrye, aka The Woman in Black (played by the barely-glimpsed Liz White). Representing soulful regret and vengeful disdain for the living in equal measure, she and the disconnected Kipps are two sides of the same coin. His initial reaction to her presence is unbridled horror, but he is soon working to free her of her torment (which provides insight as to why he doesn’t just run screaming from the house, as most normal people might).
It is this deeply humanistic element that both resonates emotionally and is the pulsating current that fuels the frights in The Woman in Black. Fans of Hill’s book and those that fondly recall the 1989 TV movie and audiences that have driven Watkins’ film to a worldwide box-office take of close to US$130million understand this. It is a work that transcends the genre whilst not skimping on any of the skin-crawling thrills that the premise promises to deliver.