The Woman in Black | Film reviews, news & interviews
The Woman in Black
James Watkins reimagines a modern classic with this moderately menacing new Hammer horror
In Susan Hill’s 1982 novel The Woman in Black, the protagonist Arthur Kipps concludes his narration with petulant certainty: “They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.” With this film adaptation (an exercise in hair-raising horror, in contrast to the book’s chill grandeur and the play’s postmodern whimsy), director James Watkins clearly feels there is more to say and, though he often says it with style, it’s a film that sometimes lacks guts. As its daring do-gooder, it features boy wonder Daniel Radcliffe, now a man and here a father who, in his continued battle against evil, is hardly distancing himself from the intrepid (or should that be accursed?) Potter.
Radcliffe plays Kipps, a young lawyer and widower with a three-year-old son, sent by his employer Mr Bentley (Roger Allam) to put in order the legal affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, of Eel Marsh House, Crythin Gifford. During his train journey Arthur is fortunate enough to encounter a local, the prosperous and genial Mr Daily (Ciarán Hinds, pictured below right). However, once he arrives in the village the other residents seem wary and reluctant to assist him. Matters worsen when, undeterred by vigorous warnings, he insists on heading to the isolated Drablow estate where he finds himself terrorised by the spectre of a wronged woman, Jennet Humfrye (Liz White from TV’s Life on Mars, only ever fleetingly glimpsed [pictured on page 2]). She’s the diabolical dame of the title, taken up a notch in nastiness for the sake of the screen.
Watkins’s The Woman in Black takes bold strides away from the book, so we’re in the dark at every turn. Gone are the Christmas-set prologue and the funeral which originally marked the first appearance of the woman. There’s a macabre new opener (with shades of Antichrist), making horribly explicit the suffering that has been inflicted on the village. Screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) both strips the original story and fleshes it out. To The Woman in Black, Goldman adds visions of a woman in white; we see Arthur’s wife die in childbirth and, three years later, he’s still haunted by her benevolent spirit. To have Arthur grieving from the outset is a sound structural change but it’s one which provides an excuse to introduce sometimes unwelcome sentimentality. A positive consequence of the changes is that our hero is placed in increased danger as, unlike in the novel (in which an older Kipps casts his mind back to his earlier adventure), we cannot be certain of his survival.
It’s a production from the recently resurrected Hammer Films, and honours that studio’s legacy with its occasional flamboyance (most notably Janet McTeer’s, let’s say, “spirited” performance as Mrs Daily and the addition of a gang of ghoulish children). Director James Watkins proved himself a sure hand at scares with the startling and more earthily unpleasant “hoodie” horror Eden Lake, as well as with his screenplay for My Little Eye (and to a lesser extent as one of the writers behind The Descent: Part 2). Under his stewardship The Woman in Black certainly looks the part, is at least sporadically frightening and never less than entertaining. The sequences set in Eel Marsh House are the best stuff here by a country mile; it’s there that Watkins really cranks up the tension and delivers the occasional impeccably timed fright (which I will refrain from describing lest I ruin the impact).
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Burt Lancaster is a model of subtlety in Visconti's most candid self-portrait
theartsdesk recommends the half-dozen top films out now
Exemplary package celebrating Ken Russell’s compelling DH Lawrence adaptation
Almodóvar's moving portrait of a mother's grief, adapted from Alice Munro
Alex Cox’s account of punk rock’s ill-fated duo takes a ride to the heart of darkness
Charisma battles desolation in moving documentary of Ukraine's lower depths
A reputation's tatters are shredded in convincing detail
Atmospheric debut film inspired by Sartre novella on the nurturing of a fascist
New horror franchise isn't scared enough of the dark
John Schlesinger's seminal British New Wave drama about a couple forced to marry
Reassuringly cosy adaptation of Arthur Ransome's 1930 children's novel
Trouble in paradise for Blake Lively courtesy of a hungry shark