Considering the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel is one of the longest running West End plays of all time, and there hasn’t been a screen adaptation for nearly 25 years, it’s amazing Hollywood hasn’t got its hands on The Woman in Black before now. Actually, it must be said, Hollywood still hasn’t caught hold of this lucrative opportunity. The film is a British-Canadian-Swedish co-production released under the famous production and distribution horror label Hammer.
Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a widowed Edwardian lawyer and single father who is sent by his employers to Eel House, a terrifying empty mansion, to sort out the legal complexities of its dead owner’s estate. The house and grounds, situated on an island off the coast, provide plenty of shocks and scares for our young but determined hero, especially when he starts seeing visions of its previous occupant, a woman always dressed in black. Her son allegedly died on the surrounding moors, although a body was never discovered. Arthur slowly learns that there is a relationship between this woman in black and the deaths of many children in the nearby village.
I have not read the novel nor seen the stage play, but I understand the story departs slightly from the original text, particularly on details of Arthur’s home and family life. However, Jane Goldman’s screenplay works well. At the start I was unconvinced – it seemed a little false and (dare I say) amateurish, but as the story took hold the dialogue was fine and the plotting sensibly managed.
Some critics will be eagerly waiting to declare Radcliffe’s first post-Potter leading performance a failure. In my opinion, this would be most unfair. He is fine in the role of Arthur, and I completely forgot he was the man who occupied our screens for years as a boy-wizard. My only complaint would be the casting of Radcliffe due to his age: he is only 22, and although he might be playing a character slightly older than himself, he does look very young to have a child of four years.
The supporting players are great. Janet McTeer gives a memorable performance as a grieving mother, and her character’s husband (Ciarán Hinds) is well cast as the only man willing to help Arthur get to the bottom of the mystery of Eel House. It’s nice to see the two Potter actors reunited once again after sharing a brief scene together in the final movie of the franchise last year, with Hinds playing Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth.
I have to confess, the film’s shocks and scares aren’t as frightening as one might hope. One must remember that this is a 12A (some moments were removed and/or reduced in impact by the film company), and sadly I fear the need to achieve this financially desirable certificate may have weakened the film slightly. I’m not saying I was in desperate need of more gore or gratuitous images of child corpses (for those delights, turn to director James Watkins’s previous film, the masterful Eden Lake). It’s the tone of the film that feels a little too restrained. It’s competently unnerving, yes, but it’s as if Watkins has been very careful not to do anything too risky. The overall effect is that of a very cautious horror film — good in the sense that it knows how to play with its audience’s fears with cloaked figures, sinister dolls and rocking chairs, but never quite pushing the boundaries enough to be entirely satisfying.
Although not an enormously thrilling triumph, The Woman in Black is a sufficiently fun, spooky ride into the past. It might not scare you as much as expected, but it’s nicely made and well acted, and makes for an entertaining 95 minutes of creepy escapism.
The Woman in Black (2012), directed by James Watkins, is distributed in the UK by Momentum Pictures, certificate 12A.