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Rapid Review: The Woman in Black

February 20, 2012

The Woman in Black is based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill, which has been adapted into a stage play, followed by a  teleplay, and now a big budget screen version.  Someone somewhere liked the source material so much that they felt it would translate to a straightforward gothic horror film (albeit a British one, which tempers the gore by leaps and bounds).

perhaps this gas lamp will illuminate the mystery..

The star of the film is Daniel Radcliffe, who will for the rest of his life no doubt be known as “the star of Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe”.  I’m sure this is why he’s trying to set himself so very far apart from that immortal character.  Here, he plays one of his first on-screen adult roles, as young lawyer Arthur Kipps,  a man haunted by the death of his wife (she died giving birth to their only son).  Arthur lives in Edwardian London, and is given one last chance to prove himself to his firm; his work has been suffering for years due to his grief at his wife’s passing.

Arthur is summoned to one of those British towns that seems eternally enveloped in mystery, darkness and fog.  One would think even a young and determined chap like Arthur would know better.  Arthur is here to settle the affairs of one recently deceased Alice Drablow, whose gothic name should suggest much towards her character.  The name of her home, Eel Marsh House, should quite settle the rest.  Eel Marsh House is accessed only at low tide, lying at the end of a bleak, marshy causeway that has much to do with the despair permeating the village, as Arthur is soon to discover

The only local who appears friendly is the wealthy Mr. Dailey (Ciaran Hinds), whose wife (Janet McTeer) is haunted by the loss of their only son decades earlier.  Arthur soon learns (thanks to the mumblings and strange ways of the locals) that the town lives in constant fear of a spectral female presence that preys on its children.  The “Woman in Black” of the title is connected to these mysterious and devastating deaths, but not in the most obvious of ways.  Arthur, as the new guy in town, becomes the self-appointed savior of the village, mostly compelled by the utter strangeness of it all (and fear for his own son), to find some sort of solution.

Ciaran Hinds, acting circles around everyone else (as usual)

A lawyer’s practicality, after all, makes anything illogical an irritant.  It must be uncovered, removed and dealt with in proper fashion.  Arthur makes the classic movie character mistake of assuming that only an outsider can possess the necessary pieces of the puzzle and solve it heroically.  This leads to interesting (if also logical) consequences.

The performances in the film are all appropriately entertaining; an actor like Ciaran Hinds can do stuff like this in his sleep and still manage to look thoughtful.    The film is at times genuinely jolting and tense, and the sets and overall “feel” of the production are effective.  Still, I wish the movie had more “teeth” in terms of the underlying mystery.  It’s far too straightforward to be truly memorable in the long run, being more of a traditional ghost story than an engrossing thriller.

A graveyard? In a gothic horror film?!

Horror films are often tough to review on their own merits.  It’s a very specific genre where there is fine line between chilling and cheesy.  Still, The Woman in Black is not as enveloping and surprising as The Others, or as openly frightening as Carrie, or as visually interesting as Psycho.  There are some hints dropped in some scenes about  spiritualism and its allure for the grieving that are left curiously underdeveloped.  I wonder what might have been left on the cutting room floor and if it would have added to the depth of the film.   What the movie does do well is present an interesting scenario involving intriguing characters.  What it doesn’t do well is follow through with a truly satisfying conclusion for either.

Overall Grade:

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