DVD Review: The Woman in Black
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Monday June 18th, 2012.
It is a common misconception that The Woman in Black is a piece of Victorian literature; in actual fact it is a novel by Susan Hill published in 1983 set most likely during Edwardian times. The book has been highly praised since it first appeared, so much so that to date it has inspired a long-running stage show by Stephen Mallatratt, a chilling TV movie in 1989, and several radio adaptations.
It finally gets the ‘event movie’ treatment thanks to screenwriter Jane Goldman and director James Watkins. The key question any audience will want to ask is: have they done justice to this celebrated contemporary ghost story? The answer is yes… on the whole this is an eerily effective bloodcurdler which cranks up an aura of dread and suspense, without resorting to excessive gore and splatter.
Young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is struggling with bills and facing the prospect of losing his job. His wife died in childbirth, leaving him with the responsibility of bringing up their child. As the pressure mounts, Arthur is close to the edge and thoughts of suicide are never far from his mind.
Then he gets a chance of redemption. In the remote north-eastern town of Crythin Gifford, an elderly lady has died and a lawyer is required to sort out her affairs, including the sale of her dilapidated mansion at Eel Marsh. Arthur accepts the assignment in order to re-establish himself as a reliable member of the firm which, in turn, will create greater job security and enable him to sort his debts.
The mansion is on a small island at the end of a causeway, completely cut off from the mainland when the tide is in. Arthur is immediately struck by the aggression and hostility that greets him in the village. Things worsen when he goes to the mansion itself, where he is subjected to a series of malevolent sounds and happenings which cannot be rationally explained.
Gradually, Arthur learns that the villagers live in fear of The Woman In Black, a vengeful spectre with a score to settle against the whole community. He pieces together the shameful and tragic secrets of Crythin Gifford, and realises that somehow he must satisfy the furious ghost’s hunger for revenge in order to set her soul to rest once and for all.
Radcliffe is rather miscast as Kipps, rather too young to be believable as a suicidal lawyer with inner demons and a tragic past. The performance itself is quite good under the circumstances but he never truly suits the role. What we have here is probably an example of cynical studio execs exploiting an actor’s fan base to raise the profile of their film, rather than casting the right actor for the part. Someone like Cillian Murphy or Christian Bale would have been so much more appropriate. You can almost imagine the board meeting… “How can we make this film a big hit?”… “Let’s get that Radcliffe lad from Harry Potter!”
Also disappointing is the absurd ending to the movie, altered somewhat from the book’s unapologetically harsh finalé and a good deal less unsettling as a result. Apart from that, The Woman in Black is a good, solid ghost story, crafted with an impressive eye for the macabre. Its aim is to generate a gnawing dread, to keep the viewer’s stomach in knots, and it sets about achieving this goal with a relentlessness that is expertly sustained throughout.
There are plenty of genuinely jumpy moments and even occasional moments which could be described as truly scary (there is, most will agree, a subtle difference between jumpy and scary). The film is put together slickly and professionally; an effective fireside scare-story which provides a welcome antidote to the increasing number of over the top gore-fests presently swamping the genre.
Some of the terror may be diminished when viewing the film on DVD; it is, after all, far easier to turn the volume down or switch on plenty of bright lights in your own front room. In a darkened movie theatre, this film has a way of getting under your skin quite unnervingly. Credit where it’s due, though… The Woman in Black is a well-crafted and eminently watchable spine-tingler and a sizable success for the British film industry.
FMV Rating *** ½