Monday, 27 February 2012

Film Review: The Woman In Black

Widower Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) hasn't dealt well in the four years since his wife's death, and his work as a lawyer has suffered. Under no uncertain terms, his latest assignment to resolve the remaining affairs of a late woman who lived in a remote country estate represents a final chance to save his position. But when young Mr Kipps arrives there's something far more terrifying than legal paperwork waiting for him.

The Woman In Black is a very traditional Victorian ghost yarn, despite Susan Hill's short novel first being published in 1983. In many ways this film adaptation remains faithful to the terror inducing devices of old, namely the power of suggestion rather than a reliance on the blood 'n guts of modern horrors. Kipps arrives in a Yorkshire dales thick with fog, so far removed from the rampant technical progress of Victorian industrialisation that it may as well be an ethereal plain. Torn apart by the death of his wife, this otherwise rational man remains open to the idea of a spirit world as a way of comfort, perusing newspaper advertisements where séances claim to contact the dead. Despite the best efforts of ardent sceptic and local gentry man Sam Daily (Hinds) to prevent him from chasing shadows, we soon learn that there is something paranormal going on. And this is the trick, to turn logical men governed only by reason into blubbering wrecks. Turns out there is something they don't understand, and that is frightening.

The core ingredients are all here; a creepy, creaky old house, inhabited by a vengeful ghost who is feared by reticent locals and dismissed by a sceptical, yet suggestible protagonist. Oh, and the bad weather, of course. It is a setup which bears uncanny resemblance last year's Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, which faithfully recreated the dim lighting and overbearing architecture of the traditional haunted houses portrayed in Victorian ghost stories. There are also parallels to The Wicker Man in which we have ourselves here an outsider in a remote village where its hostile inhabitants have a penchant to being deliberately obtuse and vicious should one get too close to the truth. But this is still very much its own film, disseminating a bleakness which not only comes from its fantastically well realised setting, but also from its woebegone characters. Indeed, it's all a bit grim 'oop north.

Perhaps the only thing which unsettles the setting however is Daniel Radcliffe's youthful exterior. We are lead to believe that this young fellow has lead the life of a man who's already had a lifetime's worth of experience. Appearing no older than twenty-five, already Arthur Kipps has seen the death of his wife and is now the single parent of a four-year old boy. For some this might be a difficult pill to swallow, especially when stood against the older chaps who are supposed to be his peers. However, if you can look past this then you will see that Radcliffe's first role since Potter actually showcases him to be quite an adept actor. Indeed, he carries the screen well, which he may as well do given that most of the time is focused on him shuffling round a rickety old house. He also manages to capture dread and suspense well - tools he's obviously perfected since facing down Basilisks and Dementors. The supporting cast feature little with the exception of Ciarán Hinds, who's super effective in playing the rationalist who eschews any talk of silly ghosts until it becomes impossible to ignore.

Yet, despite the great lengths this goes to giving a palpable sense of the heebie-jeebies, especially given ambitiously nasty Woman In Black, the out and out scares are disappointing. The Woman In Black has an unfortunate habit taken from the modern era of camera shots zooming down a black hallway or lingering on a reflective surface only for a gruesome head to pop out and scream at you. You'll see these cheap shock tactics coming a mile off, which prove to be more annoying than doing anything to provide lasting terror. Certainly, there's nothing here that will stick with you enough to warrant keeping the lights on at night. The ending, which was changed from that in the original novel, is also pretty 'meh'. It does much to diffuse the sense of fear and foreboding that The Woman In Black works so hard to build. While it wraps everything up rather neatly, the skin crawling pathos which should haunt you after any good ghost story is sadly lacking.

The Woman In Black is satisfactory attempt at a classic ghost story. While it should be commended for its bravery to adapt the source material while achieving a decent result, its cheap shocks and convenient ending do more to unsettle its eerie setup than its audience.