Hammer Films was such a name player in horror back in the 50’s and 60’s that their recent return is both a talking point and a welcome development in the current genre landscape. And The Woman in Black is a great feature for them to re-launch their name, much better than the idiosyncratic remake Let Me In which seems to stand better on its own, or the Hillary Swank disaster The Resident that all but avoided theatrical release.
The Woman in Black is pure, old-school ghost story through and through. It’s a period piece, and it walks a perfect balance between the slower, tension-building pace of old and more contemporary editing and cinematography. In fact, the cinematography here is a marvel. There are some amazing shots of the island estate where Arthur Kipps must review the will and financial documents, and the interior shots feature the richest, lushest shades of bleak grey I’ve probably ever seen on film. In fact, there’s a lived-in realism and authenticity to the house responsible for much of the mood and tension; I won’t go so far as to call it naturalism, but it definitely stands apart from most horror films’ obvious movie sets. And it’s really important that these kinds of details are so meticulously crafted, because this is the sort of film that depends on them.
The story is such a familiar one that it’s long become a genre cliche– a young lawyer heads off to a remote village to collect and review all of the legal documents at an empty estate, and finds the villagers are terrified of the house and want nothing to do with him. They try to chase him away, and the one man who befriends him, played here by Ciaran Hinds, is a skeptic of the supernatural and somewhat at odds with the prevailing mentality of the surrounding country folk. Hinds is really fantastic here; he’s one of the best character actors working today, and in the last year or two it seems he’s hit a whole new level of exposure. And he has a face made for this kind of role. There’s an easygoing trustworthiness and sincerity to him, but his face also transparently reveals disease, anxiety, and emotional pain. And Daniel Radcliffe effortlessly fills the shoes of lead protagonist Arthur Kipps. It’s an interesting role for Radcliffe to take post-Potter, because on paper it’s a related genre and it’s a role that largely asks him to perform simple actions and to spend most of his screen time reacting to things around him. And you can’t have more of a master class in that than shooting seven Harry Potter films. But Kipps is also an older character with a young son, haunted by the death of his wife, and struggling with grief and defeat; he’s certainly not on a stereotypical hero’s journey of the Joseph Campbell variety. Radcliffe acquits himself quite well and shows how he’s maturing; there’s a welcome gravity to his work, and an honest weight to his character’s emotional duress. Radcliffe never pushes and never tries to make more out of simple moments, while also demonstrating a growing emotional facility and natural vulnerability. The Woman in Black proves that he has a potential career ahead of him far richer than anything we’ve seen to date.
Once Kipps gets to the house, of course he begins to hear and see things, as well as find evidence of past tragedies involving the deceased widow’s dead son and the growing number the villagers have had with their own children. It certainly doesn’t help that Kipps begins his journey in a very raw emotional state, and he feels connected to the plights of everyone around him because of the parallels with his own young son. It isn’t long before Kipps is spending his time at the estate reading old birthday cards instead of legal documents, and running around the place chasing noises and shadows. And if one thing is abundantly obvious, this house is simply a place. you. do. not. want. to. be. But Kipps is already on his last warning with his employer as a result of his own personal tragedy and how it’s affected him, so for the good of his son and his ability to take care of his family, he really has no choice but to see the job through.
In addition to the finely tuned performances of all-involved, much credit is due to screenwriter Jane Goldman and director James Watkins. Goldman co-wrote Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and the non-Vaughn directed The Debt with writing partner and director Matthew Vaughn, and she’s always had a good ear for dialogue and a great sense of how to balance style and tone from project to project. For director Watkins, this seems to be a pretty big step up from his previous Eden Lake.
There’s not much more I want to reveal about the plot, and it hardly matters since The Woman in Black isn’t a film with a particularly intricate plot, anyway. And while there isn’t the kind of narrative-redefining ambitions that might be required to propel Woman to greatness, the reason it’s so successful on its own terms is how everyone involved seems well-aware of its more modest aims, and helps execute them to flawless perfection.