Review: The Woman in Black (12A) / Director: James Watkins / Screenplay: Jane Goldman / Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Alisa Khazanova, Tim McMullan, Roger Allam, Daniel Cerqueira, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley, Cathy Sara, David Burke, Victor McGuire, Lucy May Barker / Release date: (UK) February 10th, (US) February 3rd
The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, was adapted by Nigel Kneale for television in 1989 (shown on ITV) and screened once again in 1994 (on Channel 4). The huge success of the stage play, however, has been its true lasting legacy.
Whilst the TV movie took some liberties, Jane Goldman’s screenplay moves even further away from the source in a mission to bring about fresh subtext on grieving, new narrative angles and some quintessential British humour. There’s also very much what Anne Billson described in her BFI Classics monograph of The Thing (1982) as Chinatown Syndrome (as reference to Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic). This being the sense that what unfolds is ‘melancholy destiny’. This isn’t apparent in Hill’s original work nor the television show or play.
Goldman, in the run up to production, mentioned the influence of Japanese horror on her adaptation but therein lies a major problem with this film, bar the casting of Daniel Radcliffe, who is far too young for the role given his character is lumbered with a four year old boy and dead wife. It feels less like a J-horror film and more the poorer US variety; complete with over-use of CGI. It’s quite admirable The Woman in Black tries to deliver something a bit different yet the book’s simplicity and refreshing use of a curse – and gothic environment – provided more than enough base material for a great telling. It’s sad to report Goldman and director James Watkins’ take is too much of one thing and not enough of the other. And what is this other? The answer is: subtlety.
Arthur Kipps is already a haunted man in the film’s opening moments. His wife died in child birth and he’s a young widower with a child. Daniel Radciffe is twenty-two years old and all early marriage and unfortunate death is entirely feasible, it’s just a bit of a stretch for the guy playing Arthur Kipps. He’s still a kid. This role really needed a stronger actor, slightly older.
Radcliffe is very good as Kipps. He’s just got a backstory that sets its own agenda and causes a few wobbles. Kipps’ heartache also clearly spells out his doom from the off and this lessens the denouement. The foreboding in Hill’s book and even the television movie becomes signposted – quite clearly – from the start.
Kipps is sent off to Crythin Gifford on assignment by his boss. Geographically it’s ambiguous, but one would suggest Lincolnshire. He’s tasked with sorting out paperwork of a recently deceased client, a reclusive old lady named Alice Drablow.
Goldman ramps up the supernatural aspect from the opening scene in which the ghost basically hypnotises children into committing suicide. ‘Never forgive’ is the ghost’s raison d’etre and this sense of unstoppable killing is both scary and quite silly in the way it’s handled. At one point the film literally tells the audience – via ghostly voiceover – just in case they don’t ‘get it’. Subtle insinuation and chills are lost for old fashioned – and very American – jumps and scares. Some are good and some are bad.
The scenes with a solitary Kipps walking around the old house and super-creepy island (now realised in gloriously OTT gothic fashion) are strong and only punctured by overuse of CGI. A good example of this occasional misfiring occurs when Arthur sees what looks like a face in a top floor window. He looks up and registers a vaguely spooky face, thinks nothing of it, then it lurches backward into the darkness of the room, out of view, wearing a menacing grimace. The first part of this short scene is genuinely spooky, the second part overcooked.
Watkins and Goldman also deal with the woman in black’s curse as existing unambiguously, hence all the ghostly pyrotechnics, melting faces and sudden rushes of terror. All the villagers are not superstitious: they believe and live under constant terror. If this was made a few decades ago it would pass for political allegory. The other main character, Daly (Ciarán Hinds), insists he doesn’t believe in the curse but we know he’s lying from the off.
Before Kipps sets off on his assignment that becomes a misguided but honourable mission, he invites his boy and carer to holiday with him after finishing up. This provides a third act race-against-time as the woman in black, although reunited with her boy thanks to Arthur’s help in a spot of grave-digging, might well claim his son because ‘never forget, never forget’ is the malevolent ghost’s angst-driven message. Children’s souls are for the taking – Freddy Krueger style. Sorrow and anger is forged into a supernatural vendetta is a superb angle for folklore, but weakened by clumsy parallels drawn between Kipps and the ghost.
As mentioned, some things this movie gets right. There’s a nicely done Hammer Horror atmosphere and some brilliant set-pieces. The art design and cinematography boast excellent qualities and it features the scariest looking Victorian dolls in screen history. The glassy-eyed toys are lit with a great sense of comic terror and one even possesses jagged teeth. This oppressive décor is ramped up to the max.
However what is meant to be an inescapable curse thrust upon an innocent man turns into stale tragedy because, well, he’s a sad heart who wouldn’t possibly mind dying so he can be reunited with his dead wife now he’s got proof another plain of existence exists.
Neither does Watkins’ film equal the brilliantly mounted scare involving Kipps waking up at night and finding the woman in black staring at him inches from his face. Instead, we get a film where creeping fear is replaced by well-timed scares much like a ghost train. The Woman in Black could have been a genuine classic, but too much meddling with a fine novel and J-horror flourishes nullify the cause. The play radicalised aspects to fit with the restrictive setting of a theatre but film (like literature) is freedom to imagine. This new screen adaptation, whilst pursuing new avenues, feels strangely unsatisfying.
Expected rating: 8 out of 10