Film Review: The Woman in Black

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The House on Hokum Hill

Warning: This review reveals the film’s ending.

I’ve never read Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black, and I never will, but I once attended Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation. It was an okay sort of evening; harmless hokum; in which success depended upon the creation of mood and clever lighting. It didn’t work for me, the manipulations a little too conspicuous, but I could understand why people were drawn to its penny dreadful sensibility. Hammer, the once mighty British horror outfit, made its name with similarly ripe gothic travails, so it’s little wonder they spied this creaky ’80’s pastiche of Victorian horror and partnered the bollocks with breasts, in the form of scribe Jane Goldman.

It wouldn’t be fair to deride the film adaptation for luxuriating in clichés – director James Watkins and the aforementioned Ms Goldman are only giving the public what they want and it’s all eminently pleasurable; the haunted house, dead children, sinister Victorian dolls, crows, mist, graveyards, the successor to the grimpen mire – you name it, it’s here. A mood is created. The problem is that there’s a lifeless vacuum at the heart of this ghost story. Radcliffe be thy name.

So familiar is the iconography in this movie, it’s tempting to say you’ve already seen it. In fact, strictly speaking you have. Watkins knows the playbook by rote, employing all your favourite standbys: the Tinnitus inducing musical cue when a character backs into another, hitherto unannounced, a silhouette briefly passing the camera, lots of “it’s behind you!” audience baiting and a surfeit of creaking, whispering and yes, screaming. Nothing wrong with that you might think, and you’d be right, but because we greet these conventions like old friends, the only thing that prevents them becoming dull is close identification with the story’s protagonist; more than that, we rely on his fear to feed our own and instill that all important unease. The bad news for this Hammer picture is that this crucial role has been entrusted to the inanimate, perma-stunned visage of the former Mr Potter.

As the Harry Potter series meandered along and the cast started to sprout twatling-strings, it became apparent that the star of the show had a limited emotional and indeed, facial range. Perhaps it mattered less when he was ten, but by the time he was eighteen and called upon to deal with the story’s emotional setpieces, though I couldn’t tell you what they were, these deficiencies were as conspicuous as Jane’s Goldmans. That’s the chance you take when you cast a child actor and commit them to a role that will see out their adolescence.

On miserabilist British soap EastEnders, child actors that no longer meet the demands of the scripts are dispatched to their character’s aunt, either abroad or in the countryside, only to emerge a year later with a new face and formal training from a drama school, ready to chow down on dramatic red meat. No such mechanism existed in Harry Potter, so we were stuck with the miscast mannequin until the bitter end.

Radcliffe has been brought out of storage here in the hope that he’ll bring his Rowling-normous fanbase with him, but popular though he is, the cost to the film is considerable. Muggles that make the journey will find themselves watching paint dry for 95 minutes. Whether he’s trying to take in news of his wife’s death from childbirth, or contemplating the horror of a malevolent babe-slaying spirit, Radcliffe looks like a man for whom rigor mortis has set in prematurely. As his fear and sense of panic is undetectable to the naked eye, the audience’s ability to invest in his plight is fatally compromised. Without a surrogate we can believe in, we’re sitting on the ghost train with the lights up.

Mildly less depressing, though no less regrettable, is Goldman’s decision to import a little Americana into this very British ghost story. Perhaps under pressure to make Hill’s resolution more upbeat, and conscious that if the film is to play well stateside, any family destroyed must be restored, she provides a new ending in which Radcliffe’s Kipps (it’s all very Dickensian), is pulped by a train while trying to save his son from the vengeful spirit. Both man and son are squished but no matter, Kipps’ dead wife is waiting for them on the other side, allowing all three to walk off into the mist together; dead but, we infer, blissfully happy. I suppose it’s an “everybody wins” sort of ending, but like the preceding hour and a half, it fails to unsettle an audience who by that time are in desperate need of a shock.

Directed by:James Watkins

Country: UK

Year: 2012

Running Time: 95 mins

Certificate: 12A for inanimate Daniel Radcliffe.

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