Film review - The Woman in Black
Film work details
Title: The Woman in Black
Produced by: Hammer Films Productions, in association with UK Film Council, Talisman Productions and others
Adapted from the novel, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, first published 1983 by Hamish Hamilton
Screenplay by: Jane Goldman
Directed by: James Watkins
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Roger Allam, Janet McTeer, Ciaran Hinds
(Age) rating: PG-13
Content for advisory: contains thematic material of a frightening nature and disturbing images
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a widowed lawyer whose grief has put his career in jeopardy, is sent to a remote village to sort out the affairs of a recently deceased eccentric. But upon his arrival, it soon becomes clear that everyone in the town is keeping a deadly secret. Although the townspeople try to keep Kipps from learning their tragic history, he soon discovers that the house belonging to his client is haunted by the ghost of a woman who is determined to find someone and something she lost… and no one, not even the children, are safe
from her vengeance.
Reviewer rating: 5 Popcorns
The Woman in Black opens with a sweetly familiar scene of childhood play that quickly turns into a parent’s worst nightmare. The next scene introduces us to Arthur Kipps, a real estate solicitor. Kipps is also a widower, who lost his wife, Stella, who died giving birth to their son, Joseph. Grief has never left Kipps and the struggle to provide for Joseph and his nanny has made for strained relations at his job. But the firm is willing to give Kipps one more chance to prove his worth, and to this end assigns him to visit Eel Marsh House, an estate on an island in the north of England. Here, Kipps is required to handle the estate of the late Alice Drablow, who died without an heir as she and her husband’s only son died at a very young age.
Kipps sets to leave his son in the nanny's care, making plans for them to join him in the nearest village by Friday of the week. Before Kipps leaves little Joseph gives him a collection of drawings, a sweet collection of hand-drawn pictures of the week’s schedule. An image on the first day’s sheet portrays an apparently very frustrated Kipps himself, rather amusing in detail. Friday’s sheet portrays Joseph and his father, drawn together holding hands. As rushed for time as Kipps is, he still appreciates the child’s gesture, and keeps the pictures close to his heart during his journey.
Kipps arrives to the village, which is the last stop before the causeway leading to the island estate. With the exception for a landowner, Sam Daily and his wife Elizabeth, it is immediately apparent to Kipps that his presence is not wanted. This is most notable when Kipps visits the local solicitor, Jerome, for a scheduled discussion about the Drablow estate. Upon arrival, however, Jerome hands Kipps a briefcase with what Jerome claims is all the Drablow documents. Then he tries to blow Kipps completely off, even saying he’s arranged for a driver to take Kipps back to the train station. Not put off by Jerome’s transparent lies, Kipps hires the driver to take him to Eel Marsh House where he can find and examine any important papers Jerome failed to hand over.
It is here that Kipps first encounters the woman in black. The sighting of this specter, as unsettling for Kipps as it is, preludes violent and deadly consequences for the village’s innocents. The grisly chain of events that ensue are worsened for Kipps by the knowledge he has no way of contacting his son’s nanny and warn her to cancel plans of bringing Joseph to the village. But with access to Eel Marsh House’s darkest secrets, Kipps hopes to find an answer that will save all the children.
Some movie watchers will probably not immediately recognize this film for what it is, for The Woman in Black is completely gutted of the cliques that saturate the typical celluloid piece that claims the horror genre. There are no torture scenes, no visually appalling disfigurements, no exploitation of religious themes, no slash-and-gore, no stereotypical rednecks, no personality-bereft kick-ass heroines and no dumb sluts sacrificed for merely not being the dumb virgin instead. Instead, the audience is given an intelligent plot and a reliance on ambiance to instill fear.
The ambiance begins with a series of startles to unrattle the audience, such as the sudden seeing of ordinary human faces through keyholes or ordinary people turning out to be that shadow behind the door. But just as the audience begins to get comfortable with the startles these dissolve into the background and are replaced by a deluge of spectral assaults. These are angry assaults, immune to all efforts to placate or soften with any conventional sensitivity.
Arthur Kipps is a character weighted down with grief and impending financial disaster. We know that whatever may come of the events in the village, there is not a happily-ever-after ending waiting for him back home. He doesn’t have the aid of a priest with a bag of magical stilettos to defeat the unholy, or the help of a stranger with a conveniently stockpiled knowledge of the occult. Heck, he doesn’t even have a magic wand and flying broom on hand. Instead, Arthur Kipps is an impoverished man with a big dose of realistic stresses most cinema heroes are never burdened with. As such he is not just a sympathetic character, but one we can identify with. And Daniel Radcliffe gives a fittingly restrained performance of this gentle hero. It is one very mature and so convincing we quickly couldn't care less about that childhood role that jump kicked this actor's career.
A final note: although several studios contributed in the making of this film, it was released under the Hammer banner. This is because Hammer used to be THE horror studio, producing way back in my parents’ day some of the most beloved horror flicks of all time. Hammer was silent for a long time, but with The Woman in Black has made a striking come back. Don’t expect the legendary Hammer campyness in this film, however, or the bosomy heroines and stream-lined storylines that helped make the studio's past flicks legendary. What this film does have is an acute awareness of what real terror is. It is a impressive way to get back into the saddle for Hammer, and one I doubt could have been accomplished with a more fashionable-conscious script.
If you ruefully thought spine-tingling was forever gone, you will be happily surprised by this film. The comfort zone of predictability is denied us here in a way that is bare-bone scary. The Woman in Black, is a macabre and mesmerizing ghost story that is sure to stay with the movie watcher's psyche long after they leave the theater!
Reviewer's rating: 5 Popcorns out of a possible 5
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