I’ve long been a fan of Susan Hill’s 1983 masterpiece, The Woman in Black, and I received the news of its filmic adaptation with some trepidation. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for translating supernatural literary classics particularly well – anyone who saw the hideous 1999 debacle that was the Jan De Bont remake of The Haunting (originally The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and later the stupendous 1963 film version by Robert Wise) will know what I mean. Ghost stories are often dumbed down, and their atmosphere stripped away to leave mountains of ineffectual CGI and pointless jump cuts. The very fact that Hammer Films were behind the adaptation worried me even more – I love their classic output, but it’s not exactly subtle, is it? As for the casting of Daniel Radcliffe…well, I had my concerns.
Thankfully, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think the cast and crew deserve a hearty ‘well done’ for retaining the chilling atmosphere of the book, although I suspect this comes, in part, from the involvement of Jane Goldman as screenwriter. The story follows young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who is sent to a remote northern village to wrap up the affairs of a deceased client. The village is suitably Gothic, and its inhabitants close ranks against this hapless newcomer. Desperate to do a thorough job and assure his place at his law firm, Arthur is insistent on exploring the mysterious Eel Marsh House. His sighting of the Woman in Black sets in motion a horrific chain of events in the village, and Arthur takes it upon himself to discover her identity and, hopefully, lay her to rest.
I was worried that Radcliffe would just be playing Harry Potter, and while there was the occasional moment where I thought a magic wand might have come in handy, he more than holds his own alongside more seasoned actors like Ciaran Hinds. Indeed, Radcliffe carries the movie well, and spends much of the film acting by himself. He’s matured wonderfully and cuts a rather dashing figure as the young widower. Hinds is likeable as local landowner Samuel Daily, a seeming voice of reason in a sea of superstition, and his views on Spiritualism are surprisingly relevant to today’s culture of TV psychics.
Director James Watkins uses the CGI sparingly, instead relying on subtle framing and the play between light and shadow to veil his spectres. He did miss one wonderful opportunity to employ the ‘Vertigo shot’ but that’s probably just me being overly picky. He’s quite clearly gone for the ‘chilling’ end of the ghost story spectrum, as opposed to the ‘visually arresting but ultimately meaningless’ option. Special mention goes to the art direction of Paul Ghirardani and set decoration by Niamh Coulter, with the decor of the eerie house adding to the feelings of claustrophobia and isolation. Indeed, I half expected Arthur to encounter Miss Havisham on the staircase, so total was its devotion to Victoriana.
I didn’t find the film ‘scary’ or ‘terrifying’, although I suspect this may simply be due to my own approach to the paranormal – a year spent investigating ‘haunted’ locations, along with a lifetime exposed to the possible existence of the supernatural, desensitises you somewhat. However, I did find myself wrapped up in the story, completely immersed in this lost pocket of Victorian England. It’s a wonderful slice of Gothic filmmaking, full of genuine uncanny instances. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and would highly recommend it to anyone who has been waiting for a decent ghost story since The Others came out. Well done, Hammer – it’s good to have you back.
4.5 / 5