A film review by Craig J. Koban June 27, 2012


2012, PG-13, 95 mins.


Arthur Kipps: Daniel Radcliffe / Daily: Ciaran Hinds / Mrs. Daily: Janet McTeer / Joseph Kipps: Misha Handley / Mr. Bentley: Roger Allam

Directed by James Watkins / Written by Jane Goldman, based on the novel The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The most refreshing aspect of THE WOMAN IN BLACK is that it’s a horror that’s uncommon in our current cinematic climate of nihilistic torture porn.  It’s a supernatural haunted house thriller that hones in more on creepy gothic atmosphere and a chilling sense of impending dread than requisite blood curdling gore.  The film's mindset of tension and suspense first and hack and slash violence a distant second makes it come off as a more traditional – and perhaps more interesting – old school fright flick.  

Unfortunately, the film – directed by EDEN LAKE helmer James Watkins and adapted from the Susan Hill novel of the same name – is made up of far too many obligatory elements to be considered a home run innovator of the genre.  Dark and decrepit mansions that are possessed by evil spirits is hardly anything novel, not to mention that most of the other story particulars seem heavily recycled: petrified local townsfolk, the manner the apparitions seem to coalesce with other recent deaths, and a lonely and depressed man (an attorney) that is forced by his employers to visit the aforementioned spooky dwelling in scenes that bare an awful resemblance to DRACULA.   

The man in question is a Victorian lawyer named Arthur Kipps (Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe) and he is a man that has gone through great personal tragedy.  He has recently become widowed and has been in an emotional funk since the untimely demise of his wife, who died during childbirth, leaving him to raise his four-year-old son all alone.  Arthur's depression is beginning to permeate into his work life in London, which his employers are losing patience for, so they give him one last chance to pull himself together.  They give him a new assignment to travel to the estate of the late Alice Drablow, which is the prototypical isolated and feared haunted house that can only be reached via a dark and foggy overcast narrow pathway that’s not too unlike what Jonathan Harker had to traverse in Bram Stocker’s most legendary work.   

When Arthur arrives he meets up a few of the locals, in particular a couple, Sam and Elizabeth Daily (Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer) who do try to make Arthur an accepted part of the town.  The other townsfolk greet the lawyer with hostility and threats, urging him not to travel to the estate.  Arthur realizes that he has a responsibility to his employers, not to mention that he’s compelled to complete his assignment or risk termination, so he ignores the warnings and proceeds to the Drablow estate.  The house, predictably, is not what it seems. 



The estate is the real character of THE WOMAN IN BLACK, and the production design of it – with its dreary, cobwebbed covered hallways, its decrepit rooms filled with belongings that have long since been forgotten, and its overall sense of dilapidated unease – is most certainly Oscar caliber.   The mansion is also punctuated by a series of seemingly random, but otherwise unnatural occurrences: there is a town legend that holds that the estate is indeed haunted or possessed by an entity (voices can be heard in the shadows, rocking chairs glide on their own, trinkets, lights, and other items spontaneously turn on, etc.), which may or may not have something to do with the ghost that resides there – the “Woman in Black” who may have been a key figure in the deaths of many of the town's children.  It becomes alarmingly and unsettlingly clear that Arthur is most certainly not alone. 

It would be hard for me to discuss THE WOMAN IN BLACK without mentioning Daniel Radcliffe, making his first staring role appearance since playing the boy/adolescent wizard in the J.K. Rowling-inspired fantasy series.  I have been picky about Radcliffe as an actor right from the very beginning of the first HARRY POTTER adventure and my overall opinion of him has not radically change.  At best, he has a natural, low key charm, but is nonetheless a stiff actor of limited range who was often outshone by the great British thespians that he played opposite of for a decade.  The central problem with THE WOMAN IN BLACK is that the actor is in nearly every single scene and, in my estimation; he’s just not leading man material.  He also is woefully miscast and lacks credibility playing a mature and world-weary father and widower.   

Yes, yes, Radcliffe is 22 and is an adult, but he is blessed with eternally youthful looks that always seem to make him appear like he’s in his mid-teens.  And, yes, he was the lead actor during the entirety of the HARRY POTTER franchise (to be fare, though, it was not Radcliffe that carried those films to enormous heights of popularity, but rather Rowling's books themselves).  With an unconvincing casting of the lead in THE WOMAN IN BLACK, the rest of the film sort of implodes under that misguided decision.  I just never really bought Radcliffe as an emotionally tortured grown-up with years of anguish weighing heavily under his conscience.  Just consider what the presence of a young, but more credibly mature and adept performer like, say, a Ryan Gosling could have made in a film like this and you’ll see what I mean. 

It’s funny how Radcliffe always manages to participate in films where his more experienced co-stars outshine him.  Both Ciaran Hinds and recent ALBERT NOBBS Oscar nominee Janet McTeer do provide the film withsome much needed performance gravitas and presence that’s kind of lacking when Radcliffe is on screen.  There are two other things that I modestly appreciated about the film: Firstly, THE WOMAN IN BLACK was intended to be shot in 3D, but the makers very appropriately backed off, which is a good thing seeing as this film’s persistently sinister and bleak color palette would have been all but indecipherable with multi-dimensional tinkering.  Secondly, the film’s conclusion both adheres to and kind of boldly defies the conventions of a happy ending.   

James Watkins' film certainly looks magnificent and is a frightener that has swift pacing, a sense of ghoulish atmosphere, and manages to generate some substantial boo moments that fans of these types of films clamor for (granted, the few audience jarring instances that are generated become fewer as the narrative moves forward, which may or may not have something to do with its watered down PG-13 rating).  I can certainly appreciate that THE WOMAN IN BLACK is mostly tailored made for fans of HARRY POTTER and Radcliffe in general.  Regrettably, this is not the proper staring vehicle for the actor, seeing as he still looks like he’s in his sophomore year at Hogwarts and hardly comes off as a believable twenty-something lawyer/father with a dark history of skeletons in his closet.   

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