Movie Review: The Woman in Black
The Charlotte Observer
In rare cases – and “The Woman in Black” is one of them – a story may be more atmospheric when less is left to the imagination.
Naturally, Susan Hill’s 1983 novel has to awaken spookiness inside readers. The play Stephen Mallatratt adapted from it has just two characters (both male) and takes place on a stage with a few boxes and props; words, lighting and the actors’ faces do all the work. (I’ve yawned through that stage version twice.)
So along comes a movie directed by James Watkins (“Eden Lake”), aiming to thrill us with common horror conventions: the corpselike face glimpsed over the protagonist’s shoulder, moans from an unseen woman in a pea-soup fog, a filthy handprint that should never have appeared on a windowpane. But Watkins and writer Jane Goldman (“X-Men: First Class”) handle these elements so expertly that we’re shocked again and again before a memorable ending.
That ending takes us away from book and play, lifting the story out of the realm of psychological terror into metaphysics. If you know the originals, you’ll be surprised – and maybe surprised, as I was, at your emotional response.
Goldman has kept the outline of the tale while tweaking many things along the way. Young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is sent to Eel Marsh House on the coast of England, where a dead woman has left her estate in a muddle in the 1920s. He sees a spectral figure in black from a distance, and the townspeople cower: They know her appearance always portends the horrible death of a child.
That’s because she lost her only son years ago. Her sister adopted that boy, who’d been born out of wedlock, and all but forced his mother into a mental institution. His death in the marsh so unhinged the mother that she died, too. Now Kipps and his only friend in town, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), need to bring the ghost peace before Kipps’ son joins him at the seashore.
Watkins spares us gore: Our mounting fear depends on the creak of an empty rocking chair or the whirring fly-by of an unexpected raven. He stays true to ghost stories told during the Victorian era, when masters such as M.R. James made people shiver by gaslight. (Though there’s one car in this village, Eel Marsh House has neither a telephone nor electric lighting.)
Yet Watkins and Goldman want to make us think while we jump. Daily, who has lost a little boy, can empathize with Kipps, whose wife died in childbirth. Their minds and Christian faith tell them the soul flies upward after death – or maybe downward – and leaves the shell of the body behind, cold and irrelevant.
But if so, who’s plaguing the village? They can’t shake the feeling there are more things in heaven and Earth than are in their philosophy, and they decide to search for the corpse of the boy who perished in the marsh. We don’t find out where the filmmakers stand philosophically until the final moments.
The expressive Radcliffe looks Byronic, with his high collar, haunted eyes and five o’clock stubble; he’s a good match for Hinds, whose beefy stolidity keeps the younger man grounded. The other name actor, current Oscar nominee Janet McTeer, appears just twice – she has two mad scenes as Daily’s wife – and provides the kind of emotional connection that can keep us thinking about a scary movie after the credits roll.