by Collin Insley
10:00pm PST, February 9, 2012
Fair or not, the biggest question surrounding James Watkins’ The Woman in Black, isn’t whether the Edwardian era Gothic horror story is any good or not, or even if it’ll perform at the box office. It’s whether Daniel Radcliffe, who stars as widower Arthur Kipps, will be able to step out from under the long shadow cast by his career-starting role as boy wizard Harry Potter. It appears as if the answer to this question will remain muddy for the foreseeable future.
Kipps is a young lawyer raising a 4-year-old son after losing his wife in childbirth. He’s skating on thin ice at the law firm for which he works, but he’s given one final chance to assert himself when he’s sent to a village nestled along the English coast to handle the rather complicated estate of a deceased old woman named Alice Drablow. When he arrives after a lengthy train ride, it becomes immediately clear that not only is there something not quite right in the village, but also that he’s not wanted there. Many of the residents try their best to get him to leave, but Kipps, thinking only of the well being of his young son, cannot be persuaded. He is, however, befriended by a wealthy landowner named Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds, always great), who acts as somewhat of a guide and councilor to young Kipps throughout the story.
The centerpiece of the narrative concerns itself with the mansion that Kipps must travel to in order to settle the estate. It’s remote and, at times, completely cut off from the mainland by the ebb and flow of the tide – oh, and it appears to be haunted (trifling detail, that). As Kipps comes to understand, the village seems to be somewhat cursed, with an unusually high number of children dying under strange circumstances. Many of the villagers believe that the spirit of Jennet Humfrye, Alice Drablow’s mentally unstable sister, is somehow responsible for these deaths. After several increasingly spooky visits to the mansion, Kipps can’t help but to agree that something is horribly amiss, and as is the wont of any real hero (hello, Harry), he sets out to try to fix the problem.
For the majority of stories existing in the horror genre, the more that is explained, the worse the story gets. Here, the more Kipps comes to understand the particulars of the Drablow family history (the abridged version is that Jennet was insane, her son taken from her to be raised by Alice, the boy drowned in a tragic carriage accident, and Jennet forever after blamed Alice until finally committing suicide in one of the rooms in the mansion), the more transparent and uninvolving the story becomes. The second a horror film crosses over from making its audience wonder what in the hell is going on, to leaving its audience with nothing else to wonder about but whether the main character will survive or not, is when a horror film loses its power over its audience – it’s like leaving a trail of cookie crumbs and running out of cookies. This is what happens with The Woman in Black.
To be fair, there are more than a few quality scares to be found here (this is helped greatly by the bleak, moody atmospherics captured by cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones and production designer Kave Quinn), and the story will suck you in for most of its relatively short running time, but as is the case with so many contemporary horror films, too much is explained. Exposition is the enemy of horror. Think about it – it’s true. The more light shed on something, the less scary it becomes, and it is because director James Watkins feels the need to shed so much light on expository details that his film ultimately suffers. Here, an uninvolving third act completely derails all the great work done in the previous two acts.
Now, regarding Daniel Radcliffe: he’s a talented young performer, but I often found myself at odds with separating him from Harry Potter. Perhaps it’s his ticks as an actor, perhaps it’s simply his visage and voice – but whatever it is, he’s got some work to do if he wants to have a rewarding career separate from the Harry Potter films. Perhaps a cue can be taken from Elijah Woods, another young actor whose early(ish) career was more or less defined by playing an iconic character in a Fantasy series. After the phenomenon that was The Lord of the Rings, Woods made a tremendous effort to distance himself from the “Frodo Baggins-type”. Don’t believe me? Check out his turns in Sin City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Everything is Illuminated. Here, Radcliffe doesn’t do himself any favors by choosing to, in his very first time shedding the robes, appear in a costume-heavy period piece in which he plays an inherently likable, if flawed hero, who has been profoundly affected by the death of a loved one and must battle against forces larger than he to win the day. Also, it’s almost impossible to believe the baby-faced Radcliffe as the father of a four-year-old.
The Woman in Black isn’t an entirely bad movie. For the most part it’s pretty watchable, and has a few genuine seat-jumping moments. Unfortunately, it’s saddled by an ending that borders on ridiculous before ultimately leaving its audience wondering, “What was the point?” Unless you’re just dying to see Harry Po- uh, I mean Daniel Radcliffe, on the big screen again, I recommend that you wait for this one to come out on DVD.