Daniel Radcliffe trades in his Harry Potter elder wand for a Victorian lawyer’s solicitor’s pen in The Woman in Black, an old-fashioned, Victorian haunted-house tale that marks a safe career transition for the young star. Though Radcliffe occasionally seems too stiffly callow to be completely convincing in this grown-up role, the movie is a proficient thriller with a potential appeal beyond the star’s fan-girl audience.
Susan Hill’s 1983 Victorian-inspired novel has already proved its popularity in radio and television adaptations and a theatrical play that has run since 1989 in London, second in endurance only to The Mouse Trap.
For this adaptation, screenwriter Jane Goldman ( X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) and director James Watkins ( Eden Lake) up the body count and pay homage to vintage horror movies, particularly in the overstuffed haunted-house tradition of Hammer Pictures (the movie is produced under the revived Hammer shingle).
Their version is also supplemented with some modern Japanese chilly effects from such films as Ringu and The Grudge.
Bestubbled and glasses-free, Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young widower whose spouse (as we learn in a flashback) died during childbirth, leaving him with a young son. The still-grieving Arthur lives with the now three-year-old Joseph (Misha Handley) and a nanny but is risking his career because of his preoccupation with the loss of his wife.
To keep his job, he’s required to take an out-of-town assignment, taking care of overdue paperwork for the estate of a Mrs. Dablow, in the remote village of Crythin Gifford.
From the outset, all indications are dire. The scowling innkeeper seems to have lost his reservation and Arthur is compelled to sleep in a cobwebby attic. The frightened townspeople urge him to avoid the old lady’s house, a mist-enshrouded mansion, invitingly called Eel Marsh, stuck at the end of a causeway, cut off from land at high tide. Arthur finds some support from a local landowner and doughty skeptic of the local folklore, though his wife (Janet McTeer) is deranged by grief.
The house (designed by Kave Quinn) is the real star here, a ramshackle network of hallways and secret rooms, full of self-rocking chairs, banging doors and creepy wind-up toys. Arthur spends several terrifying nights there, reacting to jolting off-screen sounds and strange visions (some of which we see when he doesn’t, negating the possibility that he’s insane).
Creepiest of all is the ghostly, black-clad, white-faced woman (Liz White) who appears, gliding rapidly, in the garden or moving about the rooms of the house.
Between terrified reactions (after a decade of playing the terrified Harry, Radcliffe is good at this), Arthur reads the letters of a woman who was diagnosed as mentally ill and separated from her son, who subsequently died. Now her ghost’s desire for revenge is focused on bringing harm to other people’s children. The threat becomes more pressing with the imminent arrival of Arthur’s son, accompanied by his nanny, in a couple of days.
The special effects become repetitive in the film’s second half, though the filmmakers show their own kind of courage by allowing long stretches of the film to unfold without any dialogue. The effect is refreshing and almost compensates for the film’s occasional longueurs and the eye-rolling, treacly conclusion.
All in all, The Woman in Black is a film that serves its purpose. It proves that, although Harry Potter is finished, Daniel Radcliffe may still have a future on the dark side.
The Woman in Black
- Directed by James Watkins
- Written by Jane Goldman
- Starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran Hinds
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars