The Woman in Black sees young solicitor, Arthur Kipp (Daniel Radcliffe), penniless and still mourning the loss of his wife, venturing to the village of Crythin Gifford to handle the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Like any weekend in the country, he’s faced with your usual grumpy locals, lukewarm pub grub, picturesque views of the marsh, oh, and a ghost that seems to be wreaking havoc and killing the village tots.
The film’s source material is a much-loved favourite amongst literature and theatre fans. There are probably volumes all over the world; spines cracked and stained with red wine waiting to be read or lent out at the nearest whiff of an excuse. At the West End, it is the longest running play after The Mousetrap. We are talking heritage here, people! So, understandably, there were probably a few people who nearly threw up their foie grais, when it was announced James Watkins would be directing. Watkins’s previous effort, Eden Lake, with its Fassbender torturing and hoodies setting fire to Asian kids, was not known for its nuances. Nasty, schlocky and with just a hint of exploitation, Eden Lake was the Daily Mail’s fears put to film… Thankfully, all concerns can be put aside.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Furrowed brow and five o’clock shadow, Radcliffe just about manages to shake off his Harry Potter skin. Truthfully, he’s never really going to quite get rid of it, but this is less a criticism and more a celebration of how much he made that original role his own. However, his years of jumping at the sight of nothing come in strong here. And whilst he doesn’t totally convince as a grieving husband, he is perfectly capable of carrying the movie. Which is a good thing considering that he is 90% of the movie. True to the spirit of Hammer Horrors of the past, the inhabitants of Crythin Gifford do very little apart from pointing accusatory fingers and, in the case of mad housewife Elizabeth Daily (Janet McTeer), speak in hushed, frantic tones about the horror at Eel Marsh house.
When the bumps in the night start, Watkins keeps a tight rein on proceedings. Unlike Eden Lake, there is little reliance on gore and he plays with his audience, rarely giving any genuine money shots. Things are hiding and lurking in the dark and Watkins doesn’t want you to see them till it’s too late. The only major letdown is the ending which finishes about two minutes after it should have done and veers dangerously towards twee. That said, the tension is stifling and probably more akin to Watkins’s screenplay for My Little Eye; teasing out the scares for as long as possible before the final big bad.
Woman in Black purists may balk at the large chunks of liberty that have been taken with the source, but despite them, it remains true in spirit. This isn’t a reimagining with Kate Upton jiggling up the corridors filmed in shaky cam. This is a mature piece of work with the scares on the right side of ‘murmur murmur BANG!’. This is faded yellow pages containing dark secrets, shadows created by candle light, children crying at the bottom of the marsh and whispers the colour of dust. This is Hammer Horror at its finest.