The Woman In Black

January 26, 2012 by staff 

The Woman In Black, Guttering candles. Pale faces at windows. Mysterious noises from upstairs. They’re a few of the things commonly found in a classic ghost story, and Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman In Black contained all of them. A spectral mystery in the tradition of MR James, Hill’s novel was the subject of a popular stage play, a 1989 TV movie, a couple of radio adaptations, and now a new Hammer production starring Daniel Radcliffe.

The question is, how is it possible to adapt such a traditional story in a way that modern audiences will find even remotely frightening? Many of the ghost story trappings listed above are now so familiar, and so constantly parodied, they’re almost cosy, like an episode of Heartbeat or Highway To Heaven.

Director James Watkins’ answer to this problem is simple: there’s nothing wrong with the familiar and the generic, as long as the material’s approached with enthusiasm and conviction. The result is a modern supernatural horror that is old-fashioned yet extremely effective.

It’s the late Victorian era, and young London lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is summoned to the isolated town of Crythin Gifford to settle the legal affairs of a reclusive widow. On arrival, Kipps is confronted by several increasingly unsettling mysteries: why are the town’s inhabitants so intent on sending him back to London? Why are the townsfolks’ children dying in weird circumstances, and what do these deaths have to do to with Eel Marsh House, the remote dwelling of the late widow?

You might think that The Woman In Black’s success hinges on the talents of Daniel Radcliffe. This is, after all, his first film since he graduated from Hogwarts, and the first film in which he’s asked to play an adult (complete with facial hair) rather than a schoolboy wizard. And at first, Radcliffe still seems a little too young to play the widowed father to a four-year-old boy. His voice is a couple of tones to high, his face still a little too fresh.

Gradually, though, it becomes easier to forget that it’s the chap who played Harry Potter who’s creeping around a haunted house with a candle in his hand, and while Radcliffe doesn’t quite convince as a well-to-do Victorian gentleman when he opens his mouth, he’s extremely good at looking frightened. His blue eyes shine luminously in the darkness, as all sorts of unholy shadows lurk behind fluttering curtains and heavy oak doors.

It helps that Radcliffe’s joined by a great supporting cast. Ciar?n Hinds is great as a wealthy landowner, and Janet McTeer is equally good as his traumatised wife, who dresses her dogs up in sailor outfits and has to be restrained from wrecking the dinner table.

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