‘The Woman in Black’ is a traditional ghost story that has a slow start, but the setting, sound and a solid performance by Daniel Radcliffe creates a film with an interesting story filled with tension and frights.
This review does not discuss major plot points, so no worries about spoilers.
The film is set in the early 20th century, during a time when the automobile was new and séances were endorsed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) lives in London and has to travel to a remote village to settle the affairs of a recently deceased client. The village is murky, wet, foggy and sullen. The village is remote and electricity is unavailable, so the filtered sun and candles are the sources of light. The sun is hidden behind a thick veil of overcast clouds, which can be attributed to the English locale. The lack of direct sunlight gives the village and its residents a dour appearance, and colors are muted; the film is so drained of color that it feels like a black-and-white movie. The use of the weather and other natural elements allows for moments of confusion in the fog and makes deep and black shadows, where vengeful things dwell and fester. The setting of the film provokes a sense of foreboding that is perfect for a ghost story.
Another key factor in establishing the tone is the house. Saying the house is remote is an understatement. The house is outside of the village on an island in the marsh. The tides block the solitary road to the house, so for long stretches of time, one is cut off from civilization. The house is shot from a low angle, making it tower over everything and infusing a sense of dread into the film. Filled with cobwebs, mounted animal heads, and dolls, the house screams, “There’s a ghost inside!” Knowing this only intensifies the tension that continually builds throughout the film.
The story is about Arthur Kipps, and he is a man wallowing in desperation. He is still distraught over the death of his wife. Being a single father who is battling depression has brought him to a point of losing of his job. He has to complete the task assigned to him or he will be fired, and this explains Arthur’s insistence about staying on at the village and going to the house. Radcliffe’s demeanor and the haunted, wounded look in his eyes express Arthur’s state of fear of losing everything since he has so little left. Radcliffe uses his slender body well. Arthur carries the weight of death and grief, so he rarely stands or walks with confidence, and Radcliffe draws in all the energy, appearing smaller than he actually is. There are scenes when Arthur has bursts of life and urgency, but to discuss those scenes in detail would reveal plot, and knowing the plot of this film robs the impact of the scares.
Many have wondered if Daniel Radcliffe can carry a film post-‘Harry Potter.’ He can. Loss is common in both characters, but Arthur’s reaction to his circumstances is completely different than Harry’s. I never thought of ‘Harry Potter’ during this entire film. I only saw Arthur, and this demonstrates that Radcliffe, if he makes the right choices, has a long film career ahead of him.
Sound is used very well. There are long stretches of quiet that heighten the suspense. Music comes in at the right moments and is not intrusive. The sound, setting, and Radcliffe’s performance come together to tell a ghost story that had me clutching my armrest. This film reminds me of old Vincent Price movies; the film is scary without being gory or vulgar. So if you are in the mood for a creepy and chilling time at the movies, then ‘The Woman in Black’ is a film you should see.