The 1983 Susan Hill novel of the same name gets an ominous revival for the big screen, and starring big name Daniel Radcliffe who is intent on showing critics that he need not be typecast forever as The Boy Who Lived. Directed by James Watkins (who directed the morbidly disturbing and relentlessly brutal 2008 horror Eden Lake), The Woman in Black goes far beyond the traditional cliched ghost story.
Young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) travels to an isolated island village to settle the affairs of Alice Drablow, the recently deceased owner of Eel Marsh House.
Arthur is recently bereaved and, struggling financially to support his young son, takes up the thankless job of travelling to the bleak location, separated from the mainland by a causeway which is cut off at high tide. Once there he stumbles across the unforgiving ghost of the eponymous “Woman in Black”, intent on getting her revenge for a past injustice.
The locals have been terrorised for years and attempt to dissuade Arthur from staying any longer, but he insists upon doing so in order to protect his job and, ergo, his son’s wellbeing. Radcliffe convincingly exudes the qualities of caring father, desperately longing widower and, when he attempts to appease the ghost’s wishes, a sensible young man with a moral compass; all simultaneously and with the necessary maturity.
Robbie Collin writes on The Telegraph Online: “Don’t be reassured by the 12A certificate: there’s barely a glimpse of anything scary in this film, but that’s precisely what makes it so terrifying.” This is not a movie for anyone with a nervous predisposition. In a cinematic age where supernatural thrillers dispense carefully crafted scares ten to the dozen at meticulously timed intervals, Watkins makes sure that the audience is unaware of the impending shock, and the use of shadows and long, empty corridors give an omnipresent sense of dread even without a crescendo of ominous music and a jump-out-of-your-seat thrill (although be assured they are out there, waiting!)
The Woman in Black has already seen success in the theatrical medium, holding the position of second-longest running show on the West End. Its remake for a modern, cinematic audience is a masterpiece of chill, suspense and enduring threat not from what is visible, but from what is hidden.
Admittedly, Radcliffe is no patch on Nicole Kidman’s performance in The Others, for example. The threat was made ever-more real by the convincing fear in Kidman’s eyes; her actions spoke a thousand otherwise trembling words. The drawn-out silent scenes of The Woman in Black do indeed add to the suspense, but are far less convincing than other modern suspense films (The Orphanage springs to mind as another example). It is difficult to disagree with The Guardian Online’s review that Radcliffe sometimes displays an expression of vacant indifference, when he should appear to be terrified. But to give him credit, when he does look scared, it makes everyone else scared for – and with – him.
But Radcliffe should now have assuaged critics that he is far more diverse than playing literature’s most famous boy wizard (if he hadn’t already with his brave West End performance in Equus) and Watkins proves himself yet again as a skilful master of British cinema. Watch out for this up-and-coming British talent.
I take my hat off to everyone involved in this film. Or I would if I wasn’t hiding beneath it!