Review: “The Woman in Black”

Set in 1920’s England, “The Woman in Black” relies heavily on tone and atmosphere. The title character is a vengeful spirit who’s believed to be responsible for the deaths of numerous children living within a small coastal town.

The film’s opening scene depicts three young sisters happily playing with their Victorian dolls when suddenly they appear to be transfixed by an uncontrollable force. In a trance-like state, the girls mindlessly discard their dolls as they approach their bedroom window before uniformly leaping to their deaths. This eerie opening scene sets a foreboding tone for this ghost story.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a young estate lawyer sent to a remote English village to settle the affairs of a deceased Mrs. Drablow. Upon his arrival, Kipps is shunned by local villagers who fear that an outsider investigating Mrs. Drablow’s former home will summon the spirit of the dreaded woman in black. The woman is believed to haunt the estate in mourning of her dead son.

Kipps is befriended by Simon Daily (Ciaran Hinds), who doesn’t subscribe to the superstitions of his fellow townspeople. As the wealthiest man in the village, Daily is the owner of the town’s only automobile. This is rather convenient since the house Mr. Kipps is sent to investigate is a remote and desolate estate called Eeel Marsh House which is only accessible by one long stretch of road. The road is surrounded by marsh and becomes encompassed by water and fog at high tide.

The real star of the film is Eel Marsh House itself as it’s a wonderful achievement in set design. Cinematically engaging, the brooding house and the surrounding land are deadened by age and neglect. The interior of the house is equally impressive with its gothic relics and candle lit interiors. Director James Watkins is not afraid of frequently painting his canvas with solid black brush strokes as the dimly lit cinematography within the house often enhances the feeling of anxious trepidation. The rain-soaked town also adds to the atmosphere with its slate-grey skies and unwelcoming nature.

“The Woman in Black” is a solid choice for Radcliffe’s first starring role in a film that doesn’t bear the name Harry Potter. It’s a gothic period piece with supernatural elements, so it’s not entirely jarring for audiences to see Radcliffe in the role. Although he appears a tad young to be playing a widowed father of 4-year-old boy, Radcliff manages to pull off a convincing performance as the film’s protagonist. Radcliffe is in every scene and spends a large portion of screen time within Eel Marsh House on his own with no dialogue. To Radcliffe’s credit, the film is at its most effective during these scenes as they offer the most suspenseful and chilling moments. Radcliffe has been underrated for his acting prowess, but he hits all the appropriate notes in “The Woman in Black”.

“The Woman in Black” excels in areas of set design and suspenseful pacing and there are thankfully no instances of gratuitous gore to found. However, despite those elements in place, the film does feel somewhat formulaic in nature at times. There are numerous instances of jump-scares accompanied with obnoxiously loud sound effects intended to jolt audience members out of their seats.

With a film that prides itself upon the virtues of classic horror, their usage comes as a disappointment. There are also many instances of Kipps (Radcliffe) seeing the woman in black in one instance and seeing nothing upon a second glance. This happens often, and that particular tool has lost its effectiveness as it’s so overplayed. The various shots of demonic looking toys are a bit overused as well, but they’re well done and help more than hinder the scenes in which they’re used.

“The Woman in Black” is based on Susan Hill’s 1983 novel. The screenplay by Jane Goldman (“X-Men First Class”, “Kick-Ass”) is a departure from the book in many respects, particularly the film’s final act. With enough changes to the story in place, it’s a pity that the screenplay didn’t shift to offer a more complete story. This is essentially a tale of a demonic ghost’s revenge, and while not a character study, there is an underlying theme of how grief and loss affects different people. Every character in the film has been affected by death in some form, but that theme isn’t explored as deeply as it could have been.

Mood and atmosphere are the key components that work exceptionally well and guide a soft recommendation for the whole film. It is a rousing piece of classic horror that resorts to more than a few genre cliches, though not enough to spoil the brew. “The Woman in Black” effectively builds tension and suspense assisted by impressive atmospheric visuals. However, like so many genre films of this kind, it’s not capable of effectively and satisfyingly concluding its story. Like a room temperature beverage on a blistering hot afternoon, the film falls a little short just at the moment when you require it to satisfy the most.