The Woman in Black

Is there life for actor Daniel Radcliffe after playing the boy wizard Harry Potter in eight films? Yes, there definitely is, as he proves quite well with his solid, engaging performance in surpassingly impressive ghost story, The Woman in Black.

The film is directed by James Watkins, whose only other previous credit was a well-received horror film, Eden Lake. It’s based on Susan Hills’ 1983 novel, which was adapted for the stage and has become the second longest running play in London history. Fans of the book will notice quite a few changes in the movie story. I for one think the film is a much better, more ghostly and more frightening tale than the book. Credit for that should probably go to screenwriter Jane Goldman who also wrote The Debt, one of my favorite movies last year, about retired Mossad agents whose past has caught up with them.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is an attorney struggling to maintain his mental balance after the death of his wife. He has a young son who is cared for by a nanny who lives in his house in London. Arthur’s boss at the law firm gives him one last chance to prove himself–he must travel to Northeastern England, attend the funeral of Mrs. Drablow, an elderly recluse who just died, and go through the ton of her personal papers so her affairs can be put in order and the house sold.

The story is set sometime in the Edwardian period, exact time is a little hazy, as all time seems to be in this story. Automobiles are just beginning to appear on city streets. The Victorian obsession with funerals and decorative frou-frou seems to be over (but of course old houses are filled with all the excess of that previous period) and Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories has been shocking London newspaper readers with his admission to believing in spiritualism.

Arthur travels by train to a remote village on the seacoast, where everyone seems to want to get rid of him as soon as possible. The only visitor at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral is an odd-looking woman dressed in black. When Arthur tries to find out who the woman is, everyone in the village clams up. They also seem to be hiding their children from his gaze.

The richest man in the village, Mr. Daily (Ciarin Hinds), who also drives the area’s only car, befriends Arthur and invites him to his house for dinner. There he meets Mrs. Daily (played by Janet McTeer, who may win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Albert Nobbs), an enigmatic woman who grieves the loss of her son many years ago.

The old mansion, called Eel Marsh House, is located on a small island across a long causeway that is underwater when the tide comes in, which completely cuts it off from the mainland. Surrounding the causeway are seemingly endless marshes, like black quicksand, a deathly natural landscape that few people have ever seen. When Arthur is left in the house for a few hours to work, he sees the woman in black standing in the garden staring at him. How could she possibly have gotten there? No carriage brought her as had brought Arthur. Later she is seen in the house window. Soon strange things are happening all the time, weird noises, unexplained knockings, and the antique wind-up toys in a child’s room start to act like possessed demons.

Is Arthur losing his mind, or is he indeed seeing the ghost of a woman who may be just as vengeful and insane as she was when she was alive?

The Woman is Black is a truly wonderful ghost story, with lots of eerie images and sudden frights, so it’s deliciously scary. It’s not a horror movie as some people have called it, so if you’re expecting lots of blood and gore, you’ll be disappointed. Radcliffe is a good movie hero, looking great in his Edwardian duds and sufficiently proactive when he sneaks down dark hallways and opens locked doors.

The real star of the movie however, is the unique and strikingly moody landscape–the rolling fog, the deathly marshes, the ancient village with stone streets and walls. The ghosts in the film are quite believable but it’s the eerie landscape that will haunt you.

 

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