Monday, 5 March 2012

The Woman in Black

Film Review: The Woman in Black

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Ivy White

Written by: Jane Goldman (based on the book by Susan Hill)

Directed by: James Watkins

More than just an exercise in scaring its audience witless, ‘The Woman in Black’ is a film about life after death. Not just in the spiritual or supernatural sense, although there are naturally strong touches of this throughout the film, but in a more meta sense. It is the great hope for the rejuvenated Hammer Studio, looking to bring itself back from the reputation for bad vampire films focusing more on the ladies than the scares or indeed script quality. Similarly, it is Daniel Radcliffe’s first released film since the conclusion of the Harry Potter saga. Both parties are fairly heavily invested in the film being a success.

Radcliffe has the least to worry about. His performance as the widowed, perma-stubbled and brooding young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is a perfectly respectable one, if not quite a revelation. This is fortunate; Kipps is the only character on screen for a large chunk of the film, and the highlight is a fifteen to twenty minute sequence of him alone in the spooky Eel Marsh Manor. Without this solid performance, much of the film would be a washout. While a clear sign that there is life in him post Potter, however, Kipps is perhaps not a role that is going to firmly uproot Radcliffe from his legacy. The nature of the role requires a fairly constant level of stoic misery, which will be familiar to any viewer who has seen the last few Potter films. Still, Radcliffe has much to be proud of.

Elsewhere, the film is similarly successful. For a start, the opening sequence is an absolute doozy, capturing the two warring elements of the film – terror and innocence – in an extremely unsettling scene that will leave you disturbed before the title credits. The direction is excellent, Watkins judging how to ratchet up the tension perfectly throughout. Although the film is hardly without scares for its first hour or so, it is limited to fleeting glimpses of shadowy figures, or simply the old mysterious noise that turns out to be a cat trick. We do see some of the results of the supernatural goings on, but for the most part the film relies on atmosphere, not jumps, to scare you.

This is not to say that there aren’t jumps. The aforementioned sequence with Kipps alone in the house is truly terrifying, all the gathered tension released in an extended exercise in leaving the viewers gibbering wrecks. Cunning camera angles, evil dolls, a rocking chair…even an open door, all conspiring to gather as many screams as possible.

However, past this point there is a downward turn. The Woman herself, while initially unsettling, begins to suffer from overexposure (perhaps best demonstrated by one of the more famous shots from the trailer being a very damp squib in the film itself). Worse is her tendency to shriek as she soars around, as if she is a mannequin on a ghost train. This trait coincides with the all too frequent tendency to have the sound-track give out a loud, jarring jump chord whenever something happens.

A little more restraint and confidence in the script, and this could have been a masterpiece. As it is, we have a good film, and one that both Radcliffe and Hammer should be proud of.

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