There is an ornate decaying delicacy that comes with the period haunted house film. The Woman in Black is a classic back-to-basics Gothic tale that boasts an impressively patient and confident execution of familiar tropes, successfully piling on spook after spook. This may be all the film has to offer, but it garners enough satisfaction to ward off disappointment.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widowed lawyer with a son. He is given an assignment (which his job hinges on) in a secluded English village where he is to sort through the estate of a deceased woman named Alice Drablow. The villagers are troubled by Arthur’s arrival. He gradually learns that many of the villagers have children who have died, including two hospitable citizens’ played by Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer. It is only when Arthur is alone, in the entirely isolated and haunted estate of Eel Marsh, that he is able to put the pieces together amidst a ghost who means harm.
The vast majority of ghost stories are all essentially the same. There is a ghost. This ghost has been somehow wronged in their former life. The ghost wants to invoke suffering to others because of what they were forced to endure in life. This suffering could be targeted at nobody in particular, at a specific type of person, or at the ghost’s perceived wrong-doers.
With this in mind, it is imminently clear what is going on in The Woman in Black after about thirty minutes. The trick is to have this not matter. It does matter here, and in that case, the story needs to be stronger. To be an effective ghost story, the basis may be obvious (because at this point they almost certainly will be), but the particulars should be more vague, and at least as intriguing as what can be easily ascertained. The Woman in Black lacks the mysteriousness in story that it puts forth as having.
The story’s shortcomings are largely made up for by the macabre atmosphere and revivified use of tropes that go far in filling the void. The scares themselves are not unfamiliar, but they work because of the impressively sustained ambiance that figures in far beyond the ‘jump’ moments themselves. James Watkins makes the entire journey one long successfully sustained spook.
Gothic tropes are heartily embraced with an appreciation for creaky doors and hallways, madwomen, shadows and fog, and a grandiose and decaying house that reign supreme over any character or story element to be had. Watkins wrings out a lot with a little; without him and an impressive technical crew (the production design here is stellar), this would have been entirely forgettable as opposed to the somewhat satisfying film that it is. A special kudos to those responsible for the props, who conjure up what is easily the most unsettling collection of antique wind-up dolls one is likely to ever see.
Much has been made of the fact that this is Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Potter role and I am one of those, being the Radcliffe fan myself. Sadly, there is nothing much asked of him, and it is hard not to ponder if an actor who can make something out of nothing (there are not many that can) might have been able to lend some much-needed gravitas. For one, Radcliffe is oddly callow here as a lawyer with a four-year old son. He spends his time mainly reacting to creepy goings-on within the broadly defined quietness of his character. It does not help that the characterization of Arthur Kipps hinges entirely on the continuous lamenting over the death of his wife, and the constant reminder that he loves his son and wishes he could spend more time with him. This is all he is given to do and he is serviceable.
The problematic end, which I will not explicitly spoil, is impossible to overlook for its painful mawkishness. This kind of ending has always been a personal pet peeve, for the pitiful strain it reveals in insuring that the audience is sent off with a modicum of the ‘happy ending’, no matter what the contradicting circumstances. It is corny, evasive and cowardly.
The Woman in Black is in some sense following the type of film that nobody watches for plot or characterization. There are plenty of horror films, indeed many, that offer nothing in story and are heralded for their aura alone (many Hammer Films included). I was tempted to stride towards the ‘but it wasn’t meant to’ line of reasoning. But The Woman in Black seems to want to simultaneously intrigue with its story. The film neither backs up its plot-oriented ambitions nor goes forward with a bold proclamation of plot scarcity. The result is a potentially involving tale lost as well as a residue of intention that leaves an unfulfilled mark. But its primary reason for being, the resurrection of Gothic atmosphere and tropes used effectively is something The Woman in Black has in spades, and this is almost enough.