“It’s just chasing shadows”
Is it bad that the first thing to pop in my head after loving the gothic atmosphere of James Watkins‘ The Woman in Black was how boring Susan Hill‘s source novel must be? I can’t stop thinking Anne Rice-type bloat with flowery, dark vocabulary lulling you to sleep before the next big scare occurs. In fact, this is pretty much how I felt watching the movie, even startling awake with a huge jolt by a scream only to see the remaining hand print of condensation on a second-story window. From that point on I made sure I didn’t miss another second, but not because the film was boring. On the contrary, I was simply tired and the loud score cutting through silence was a bit sleep inducing when the chimes and dings of ancient, porcelain-faced dolls weren’t piercing the air.
The truth is, Hill’s source material and Jane Goldman‘s screenplay have really hit on something to counteract the common trope of ghost stories only being believed by an eccentric spouting about occurrences the rest deem hallucination. In the remote village Daniel Radcliffe‘s morose Arthur Kipps is sent to on business, everyone is in on the foreboding secret that has claimed many. They’ve come to grips with the supernatural actions of the dangerous shrouded woman and will do anything to make sure strangers leave as suddenly as they arrive. From the hotel owners to the constable to Mr. Jerome (Tim McMullan), apparently tasked to help our young lawyer close the books on the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow, each resident encountered besides the kindly Sam (Ciarán Hinds) has all but picked him up and thrown him on the next train out.
There’s a palpable air about the village as that only makes Kipps want to complete his job more, their unwelcome attitudes and secretive silence leaving him stranded. With a son in the care of a nanny for the week and a wife dead during childbirth, Arthur needs to fulfill his duties or his employers will terminate him. So he bribes a carriage driver to ferry him to the mysterious Eel Marsh Estate, gathers the paperwork strewn about the large mansion, and diligently works by candlelight when the scraping of crows in the upstairs room doesn’t distract him out of his seat. These nightly visits are where the film truly shines with a deep black aesthetic inside and thick fog beyond. Empty rocking chairs rock, antique wind-up clowns play their tambourines, and our quick glimpses into the mirrors carefully placed in each room catch sight of the titular veiled ghost.
The old Dablow estate is a gorgeous location with haunting candlelit interiors and a unique dirt entrance road winding through marshland that’s covered by the tide for hours a day to form a virtual island. Scenes caught in the fog carry despair as we hear voices in the distance and flash upon the tragic event we’ll soon discover was the impetus to all the evil happening on the mainland. Radcliffe’s Kipps gets caught in the mystery without ever receiving an explanation of what’s happening. All he knows at the start is that he saw someone in the moonlight over a tiny graveyard out the mansion’s window. What’s weirder, however, is that once he arrives back at the village to find a young girl dead from consuming lye, the community surrounding him knows he did too.
And this is where I was most intrigued by the film—everyone our lost stranger encounters knows the ghost story is true and yet they refuse to tell the man who has unwittingly reinvigorated it. Rather than explain and look for a solution, they would rather deflect and hide with their children behind locked doors and believe they can maybe be rid of the horrors afflicting them for so long. Fear has seeped into their very existence and we know a happy ending is impossible as long as Kipps remains staunch in his position to finish what he came to do. Even after witnessing Sam’s disturbed wife (Janet McTeer) lost in a sea of denial and violent spells she says are the result of her dead son possessing her to speak through drawing, Arthur will not leave.
Watkins appears to have meticulously planned out his camera movements with precision as each cut from memory to present is effectively jarring and every excruciatingly static hold of the frame finds itself tilting to uncover a new grotesque vision for frightening his audience. It isn’t all about the cheap scares, though, as much of the time he sticks to the moody score and impressively bleak supporting cast. Men like McMullan and Shaun Dooley maintain a stern expression of fear they hope will drive Kipps away and McTeer’s tumultuous shifts in emotion are as stirring as the camera pans revealing Liz White in creepy funeral garb gliding towards the foreground, contorted in scream. And through it all Radcliffe proves he may shake the Harry Potter stigma yet. I may still need him to age a bit more before believing the little wizard a widowed father, though.
But you can’t go wrong when your horror film begins with three young girls stopping their tea party to walk towards their attic’s tri-paneled window and calmly jump out. It’s a wonderfully planned and shot sequence that lingers on their empty faces turned towards the camera right before they stand. The film’s tagline “What did they see?” proves appropriate and becomes answered in short time before than positing the ubiquitous “Why?” And while the climax gets overly morbid and the finale awkwardly happy despite what happens being anything but, the tone generally stays a consistent expression of dread. Death, betrayal, and humanity’s hopeless sense of failure carries through its obvious ghost tale aspects, but a few key parts—like Hinds digging into his role and the visually stunning use of mud—help keep it more satisfying than it probably should be.
[1 & 2] Daniel Radcliffe stars as ‘Arthur Kipps’ in CBS Films’ THE WOMAN IN BLACK. © 2011 CBS Films Inc. All rights reserved
 A scene from CBS Films’™ THE WOMAN IN BLACK.