The Woman in Black
(James Watkins, 2011, UK)
Balancing both a big screen adaptation of Susan Hill’s original novel, material predominantly confined to a continuously sell-out West End play as well as a couple of BBC radio renditions, with a post-Harry Potter venture for central protagonist Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black arrives boasting the prestigious Hammer Production seal of approval but lacking any trace of a nuanced and compelling screenplay, which satisfies itself with easy scares over narrative and character development.
Penned by Stardust (2007) and Kick-Ass (2010) scribe Jane Goldman, who also recently took a substandard stab at X-Men: First Class (2011), the film is directed by James Watkins and displays his penchant for mixing visual trepidation with a gloomy sense of dread, witnessed within his previous route down the slippery slopes of British horror, Eden Lake (2008), and the film indeed works well on an aesthetic level. Revelling in its Edwardian era setting, The Woman in Black boasts some stunningly vast cinematography, making full use of the sparse eeriness of the remote island that plays host to Eel Marsh House, the creaky, deserted mansion that Radcliffe’s character must inevitably investigate (and stay in overnight). Though for all its foreboding fog and perpetual shadows, the house acts merely as an excuse to tease out a range of predictable and clearly signposted bangs and shrieks that rarely amass to anything other than a series of cheap thrills, with another one waiting around the next dusty corner.
In a brave bid to break away from the shackles of a franchise that he has been tethered to for the past ten years, Radcliffe clearly attempts to exemplify his stronger acting abilities by taking on a role solely reliant on a quietly resilient presence which he unfortunately lacks. His character, while emotionally damaged and physically sallow, is nothing more than a passive catalyst for the frights that beleaguer the house and the surrounding villagers, who are consecutively losing their children in quick, terrorising succession. It is a time-honoured trope of the ‘haunted house’ genre for the protagonist’s to unwittingly, and mindlessly, venture into dangerous territories and predicaments against any sense of common logic, and Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps plays up to the stereotypical, inquisitive character desperate for answers, yet he is merely a reactionary tool for the filmmakers to gauge the attentiveness of the audience, moving to the next room with a peculiar sound emanating from within and opening doors when he really shouldn’t.
Attempting to amp up the eventually devastating climax, Goldman takes time to explore Arthur’s backstory by utilising flashback sequences that display the cause of his debilitating and long-gestating grief, but they are wasted on a weightless, hollow protagonist who, just like the film, bares witness to a parade of stock shocks that rarely sustain any tension or dread, or add up to anything worthwhile for that matter.