|Image: Momentum Pictures|
Susan Hill’s novel has been enduringly popular since its publication in 1983, spawning an acclaimed television film by Nigel Kneale and a long-running West End play. It seems apt that the recently revived Hammer Films should be the ones to bring us the film adaptation, written by the on-a-roll Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) and starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter lead.
Victorian England. Widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) leaves his young son to tend to the estate of Alice Drablow in a remote village. But why do the villagers keep their children away from him? And why will no one go to the Drablow house? What are they afraid of?
First: a disclaimer. At the time of watching this film I had not read the novel or seen the TV adaptation so any changes to the story that others will pick up on went unnoticed by me.
There’s an interesting mix of people at work here. Hammer’s rich history and Goldman’s track record of good adaptations aside, it’s directed by James Watkins, who gave us the nasty little horror Eden Lake, in which a group of kids did very bad things to Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly. But our main concern was the film’s star. Radcliffe has never really impressed us in the Harry Potter films and we were worried about whether he could carry a film set beyond the walls of Hogwarts. We can report that, while his acting has improved, he’s not as good as he needs to be. His face conveys the bereaved, haunted man perfectly but his delivery of the dialogue is painfully flat, especially as things get more intense.
But Radcliffe aside, there’s much to enjoy here. After an eye-catching opening sequence, Watkins and Goldman take their time to build mood and atmosphere. The Woman in Black does occasionally flirt with being a little slick and a little too stylish. For a Victorian horror film it’s surprisingly well-lit, which means it doesn’t always have the gloomy, oppressive mood that you would usually associate with the genre. However, once things get going and Kipps decides that it’s definitely a good idea to stay the night at the Drablow house it becomes clear that the filmmakers have a firm grip on the wheel.
It’s difficult to talk about the second half of the film without spoiling anything so we’ll just say that things get very creepy very fast. Fans of the genre will appreciate the use of old favourites such as antique children’s toys and rocking chairs, while newcomers should be on the receiving end of a lot of good shocks. Goldman has spoken about the influence of J-horror on the mood and tone of the film and the general sense of melancholy works very nicely. There’s also sterling support from Ciarán Hinds (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Janet McTeer (Tideland) as a wealthy couple who lend their sensible support and unhinged insight to Kipps respectively.
It’s a little glossy and it could have used a different actor in the lead but The Woman in Black is a well-crafted ghost story that builds a nicely sustained atmosphere of unease and fear. If it’s not full-tilt terrifying enough for the hardcore horror fans, it’s certainly pretty intense for the 12A certificate.
Horror fans should enjoy this well-crafted ghost story. Non-horror fans will want to hold onto their popcorn.