Film Review: “The Woman in Black”

by Jason LeRoy on February 3, 2012

Daniel Radcliffe in THE WOMAN IN BLACK

starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer

written by: Jane Goldman

directed by: James Watkins

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images

In the elegantly chilling paranormal thriller The Woman in Black, Daniel Radcliffe takes his first big post-Potter steps as Arthur Kipps, a Victorian-era young lawyer who’s been too busy grieving for his deceased wife to do an effective job at lawyering. His pissed-off lawyer boss decides to give mopey Arthur one last chance to get his shit together and prove himself, so he dispatches him to a tiny village for the decidedly unsexy task of sorting through a recently deceased old woman’s papers.

Leaving behind his four-year-old son (I think I speak for the entire world when I say NO ONE is ready to see Radcliffe as the father of a four-year-old), Arthur travels to the remote locale, where it becomes immediately and hilariously clear that he is not welcome; his every appearance is greeted with comically exaggerated glances amongst the townspeople. But Arthur perseveres through their attempts to get rid of him, doggedly determined to save his job by sorting the shit out of that old dead woman’s papers. He is periodically assisted by Daily (Ciaran Hinds), the only local who seems sympathetic to his efforts.

While Arthur is initially kept in the dark about the villagers’ objections to his presence, he begins to notice that the children of the town seem to be dying with alarming frequency; many of the townsfolk, including Daily and his spiritualist wife (Janet “Jugs” McTeer), have already experienced the loss of at least one child. He gradually begins to piece together that this is somehow connected to a vengeful spirit that dwells in the home he has been sent to catalog. It bears mentioning that this “home” is actually a huge Gothic mansion sitting atop foreboding cemetery-covered grounds. Oh, and the property becomes an island of terror whenever the tide comes in, wiping out ground transportation on all sides and stranding whomever is inside.

This is such a solid entry in the haunted house/vengeful spirit field that one nearly expects Jessica Lange to come sauntering into the kitchen, offering a plate of sweetbreads and some charmingly off-color jokes about Koreans. The lean and efficient script, adapted by rising scribe star Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, The Debt, X-Men: First Class) from the novel by Susan Hill, thoroughly checks off nearly every trick in the haunted house playbook, many of them during one relentlessly extended sequence of nearly unbearable suspense in which Arthur stupidly decides to spend the night working inside the house.

The film certainly isn’t safe from those kinds of classic-duh moments — many poor decisions are made, strange noises are freely investigated, and it’s never quite clear why the townspeople don’t just move elsewhere. The scares themselves are also quite familiar; we always know when they’re coming and, usually, what they’ll be. So it is a testament to the direction of James Watkins, making his second directorial effort after the acclaimed thriller Eden Lake, that it all still manages to be very, very scary. Watkins and Goldman both seem to understand that regardless of how many times we’ve seen these moments (and, really, that familiarity is actually on their side), they will always have the power to scare us — when done well.

And this is not a film that half-asses its scares. It means business. Like the epically terrifying Insidious, it is a PG-13 thriller with a working knowledge of fear that makes it far more effective than the most outlandishly gory hard-R horror flicks. (Although perhaps it is a bit too similar to Insidious; its title character in particular looks rather familiar.) As for Radcliffe, he anchors the entire film with an electric and fully committed performance. Although it is amusing imagining the filmmakers scrambling to film him in angles that make him resemble a normal-sized adult male rather than an adorable pocket person.

The Woman in Black opens nationwide today.

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