Oh, where’s that boy wizard from Hogwarts when you need him? It turns out that Daniel Radcliffe did not bring his sorcerer’s wand with him when he graduated to his first adult film role since the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. Too bad. Magic powers would have come in handy when dealing with the malevolent ghost that haunts this spook-house tale, the first film in 35 years to be shot in Great Britain under the venerable Hammer Film banner.
Set in turn-of-the-century England, The Woman in Black is drenched in Victorian gothic horror tropes. Radcliffe anchors the film as Arthur Kipps, a widower and father of a young boy, whose grief for his wife (who, in classic Victorian fashion, died during childbirth) permeates his interactions with his son and the performance of his job as a solicitor. He’s given a last chance to excel when his employer sends him to Yorkshire to tie up the affairs of a deceased client, whose paperwork in her remote mansion, Eel Marsh House, is in complete disarray. Of course the manse – indeed, the entire village – is haunted, but Arthur’s need to succeed at his task overrides any more instinctive desire to flee the premises.
Author Susan Hill has surely garnered tons of royalties from her novel, The Woman in Black, which was published in 1982. The story has been reworked as a TV movie, a radio series, a play, and now a feature film. Screenwriter Jane Goldman, whose credits include the action films Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class, this time relies more on things that go bump in the night than straight-ahead exploits. Creaky sounds, chilling shrieks, and spooky footsteps are the stuff of this movie, while candlelit recesses, eerie figures glimpsed in peripheral vision, and the strange isolation of Eel Marsh House are their visual counterparts. The terrified villagers are tight-lipped and aloof, and their children are kept locked asay from strangers. James Watkins (Eden Lake) directs the gloomy activities with a sure hand, but Radcliffe, who appears in nearly every scene, never ignites onscreen. Perhaps he still seems too wet behind the ears to believably portray a grieving father, or maybe he just has too little to do here other than react speechlessly. The film is wonderfully atmospheric and full of little frights, but its overall impact is only glancing.