Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Regular readers will recall that one of our most-anticipated films of the season opened this weekend. The Woman in Black, starring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and borg.com favorite Ciaran Hinds (everything!), is a classic ghost story set in the late Victorian era, and offers up plenty of spooky atmosphere and a handful of startling horror sequences, though ultimately nothing too terribly terrifying.
Based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, and following a successful run as a play in London, The Woman in Black recounts the tale of Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young, widowed solicitor hired to settle the affairs at the creepy, isolated Eel Marsh House in the equally creepy village of Crythin Gifford. The film opens in true gothic fashion, with the young protagonist’s journey into a landscape that is both literally and metaphorically haunting and despondent. Here, the unearthly fenlands and heavy-handed Victorian furnishings are used to excellent effect, setting the scene for a tale of loss and decrepitude.
From his arrival in Crythin Gifford, Kipps is made bluntly unwelcome by nearly everyone he meets: his innkeeper, his local employment office, and the brooding villagers in turn. Only Mr. Daily (Hinds), a worldly stranger he meets on the train, makes any effort at friendship or hospitality, and will become a welcome ally during the course of the film. Finally at work at Eel Marsh, Kipps discovers a house with a secret, suffused not just with damp and cobwebs, but with old memories and desperate grief turned to vengeance. As Kipps works in the mansion, the titular Woman in Black works her deadly influence on the villagers.
Since a great deal of the fun of a good ghost story is the unraveling of the backstory (and, even more importantly, since that backstory makes up about 80% of the plot here), we won’t reveal more about the actual storyline. Purists will want to note that apparently the story presented in the film is a rather sharp departure from that of the novel, so consider yourself prepared.
This is a gothic-styled ghost story (with actual ghosts), in the vein of The Others or The Turn of the Screw, so it relies on building an unsettling atmosphere, more than in depicting graphic horror. The scares here are along the lines of what we saw in The Sixth Sense, although sadly, if you’ve seen the previews, you’ve already seen essentially every startling scene. There is one brief moment of gore, hardly enough to warrant the PG-13 rating (though more sensitive viewers may find the plot sufficient for that). The story is likewise somewhat thin and fairly predictable–yet The Woman in Black managed to deliver an ending I found immensely satisfying.
The highlight of the movie (aside from the incredibly grim Victorian set dressing at Eel Marsh, which deserves attention come awards season) was probably the performance handed in by veteran British character actor Ciaran Hinds. Playing the only villager willing to confide in Kipps, Hinds adds a needed gravity to the film as a man of reason, determined to deal with his grief on his own terms.
If you’re looking for scares galore, graphic gore, and a film that will propel you screaming from your seats–this isn’t that movie. If you’re a fan of costume dramas; misty, foggy landscapes; and traditional hauntings borne from compelling backstory, you’ll probably find The Woman in Black worth the ticket price.