The Woman in Black (2012)

In 1983 Susan Hill wrote a horror fiction novel called The Woman in Black, but little did she know this would spawn an award-winning stage play (1989 – Present Day), an ITV production (1989), two radio plays (1993 & 2004) and now a Hammer horror feature film starring Harry Potter.

After the debacle that was The Resident, Hammer really needed something better to show they mean business and they chose The Woman in Black. Bringing it back to Britain, Hammer hired Eden Lake director James Watkins, screenwriting Brit Jane Goldman and cast a wealth of British actors, including Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds and Ron from Goodnight Sweetheart (or Victor McGuire, as he’s probably known). But did Hammer succeed this time? Yes and no. It certainly wasn’t a diabolical mess, but it’s far from perfect.

Welcome to England, circ late 1800’s. Widower and single dad Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is suffering his own personal recession. Flat broke and about to be fired from his law-firm job, he’s given one last chance to prove himself to his boss, by travelling to the arse-end of nowhere to gather documents from a dead woman’s house. Sadly for Kipps, however, the house is still occupied… but not by someone alive. The occupant is the titular woman dressed in black, and Kipps quickly realizes he might not just be taking documents from Eel Marsh House, but something so much worse…

The Woman in Black is not terrifying but it is deeply unsettling and hugely depressing. Set in greying, muddy hues with a haunting, melancholic score by Marco Beltrami, the entire film is swathed in grief. Watkins direction is eons away from Eden Lake’s blustering violence and it’s much more composed, whilst Goldman does manage to add some genuinely disturbing moments (I’m looking at you, baby bird in the fireplace).

Unfortunately Goldman’s rambunctious dialogue and energy isn’t quite present in The Woman in Black. Having been responsible for co-penning Stardust, Kick Ass and X Men: First Class I had hoped for more, but it is almost entirely without mirth. This is not a trudging film, but it does feel like spending 95 minutes at a funeral.

Although The Woman in Black is enjoyable throughout, it always feels like something is missing. Maybe significant scares, perhaps a less obvious reveal or – most likely – a decent central performance from a more seasoned actor. Anyone who saw Radcliffe’s theatrical turn in Equus will know the man can genuinely act – and damn well – but in The Woman in Black he seems seriously out of his depth. Perhaps his youthfulness is to blame or maybe the tough, emotional material, but it’s probably because at one point I felt like standing up and yelling “You’re a wizard, ‘Arry!!”.

Not a hugely mature reaction, but it proved to me that Radcliffe will never be convincing on film until he’s shaken off his Harry Potter days – a few more wrinkles, a bad guy role or maybe a big fat beard to cover his hilarious-looking stubble. This performance was too close to Potter and it’s an image he’ll find hard to shake. Radcliffe isn’t atrocious, but he’s simply not convincing enough to make you care.

Luckily the supporting cast does excellent work in “supporting”, especially Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer, who play the unfortunate Mr and Mrs Daily to perfection. Every moment with them on screen shines, and the film would be lost without them.

At 95 minutes in length, The Woman in Black certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome, and those new to ghost stories will find the scares and the reveals exciting and disturbing. Those more versed in the genre might feel it retreads over very worn ground, with haunted rocking chairs, scary mechanical monkeys, creepy-eyed dolls, mysterious candle-snuffing breezes, ghostly handprints on windows etc… etc… but it’s well done and could almost be viewed as a homage to the simpler ghost stories of the past. Thankfully it doesn’t resort to cheap scares à la Insidious and instead really drags you into the darkness to feel the hopelessness and depression of it all.

Many fans of the theatrical production (which has played at the Fortune Theatre, central London, for 23 years) will be disappointed by the lack of scares – I saw the stage production 15 years ago and it genuinely terrified me, but sadly Hammer’s The Woman in Black simply left me with a sense of sadness and (slight) annoyance at their crappy choice of ending.

Oddly – and presumably for the Potter audience – the BBFC labelled this as a 12A, meaning you can take an seven year old to see this if you wanted. Don’t. It deals with issues no seven year old should have to see or understand and it’s simply too upsetting for a younger audience. The BBFC clearly want a lot of children to have nightmares…

I don’t often lob out clichés in my reviews, but you should support the British film industry and check this out (but don’t download it, you berk). The Woman in Black is not particularly inventive or clever or scary, but it’s a finely crafted, traditionalist ghost story. More likely to have you slumping sadly into your seat instead of leaping from your skin, The Woman in Black is the best thing Hammer Films have produced in years. Check it out.

Rating: ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆

One Comment on “The Woman in Black”

  1. Natalie Hill says:

    I think this is a very well balanced view. What annoyed me more having read the book, was the jiggling about of the plots specifics.Radcliffe would have been more convincing as a young man with a young wife at home who was given this journey by his firm as a recognition of his promise (as in the original novel). Not to spoil the originalplot for anyone, but the twist of the original book is revealed far too early in the film-which necessitates the bizarre add on plot about the son in the marsh, which did border on farcical in places – a body that had been left in a marsh for over 40 years would not have been in such good condition!! I do think that the film looked beautiful, with the atmosphere and suspense spot on. If only they hadn’t felt the need to deviate from Hill’s original quite so much to pad out an extra 45 minutes.

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