The Woman in Black – Film Review
Technically The Woman in Black film should not have worked. It said nothing new and had a lack of any real shocking twist, despite what the adverts said. A deserved box office hit, then?
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of The Woman in Black, it follows the misadventures of a young lawyer as he travels to a remote village only to discover the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman. The film is based on the book by Susan Hill, modern fiction written in the Victorian Gothic style.
Beautifully shot, The Woman in Black takes the tired old tropes we see in every horror film (jump scares, haunted house, creepy children, scary woman, mad villagers) and presents them in simple, clean and attractive visuals. The scene where we first see the great marshland next to the sea still captivates me and holds me breathless. The haunted house looks very decrepit and scary, to the point where I’d say it’s more intimidating that the ghost (our title character, also known in the film as the late Jennet Humfrye) herself.
Refreshingly for a horror film, our protagonist (Arthur Kipps, played by Daniel Radcliffe) is no Scream Queen. In fact, Arthur Kipps does little other than walk around, get confused and look afraid. Too many haunted house films channel their inner Scooby Doo and have as many characters high tailing it around as many set-pieces as possible. It’s a handy technique to throw the viewer off balance and render us as bewildered and confused as the characters on-screen. However, Daniel Radcliffe does little in the way of screaming and his experience of the house is kept to as few rooms as possible, in keeping with the stage play: a gratifyingly unsettling move which gives us time to get to know the rooms and absorb their plot significance. The claustrophobic interior of the mansion adds to the film’s primary mission – to build tension to its highest peak and hold it there for as long as possible. It’s a good thing the film was only an hour and a half. Any longer and people may have become exhausted (or bored).
The film also seems to nod to the theatre in the portrayal of some of the secondary characters. I found the acting to be rather good on the whole, but some of the acting seems very wide-eyed and dramatic in a way more suited to the big stage than the big screen – particularly in the case of Elizabeth, tormented by the spirit of her dead son. Some moments appear to be played for twisted comedy, but this can come across as inappropriately comedic and detracting from the tension.
And those villagers… Sometimes they remind me of The League of Gentleman characters; a series of bizarre folk doing strange things and not always for a clear reason. Have they been driven insane by Jennet’s spirit to engage in such self-destructive behaviour rather than simply moving village? By the end of the film, the audience are left with more questions than answers… though the uncertainty as to what is real or imagined can work in this ghost story’s favour.
Finally, we should talk about Daniel Radcliff’s acting. Doing the best he can with the material to hand, he acts sufficiently well, comes across as likeable and has a strong back story regarding his tendency to obssesion and his parenting woes. It is Radcliffe’s quiet performance that holds this illogical madness of a film together. Arthur Kipps is essentially us, the ordinary man or woman, thrown into a strange and frightening story that is unbelievable yet captivating.
Even though it doesn’t do anything new, The Woman in Black does the old Hammer horror style very well. If this old-fashioned style of horror seems to affect people more than our more modern horrors, I think that reflects poorly on our modern films. We don’t need outpourings of blood and visceral display, extreme violence or a plethora of dull, young characters being murdered in creative ways in order to get a scare. We need suspense. And lots of it.
Sometimes vengeance, obsession and shadows are all we need.