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The Woman in Black

February 4, 2012
The Woman in Black

I’m not sure just how to classify The Woman in Black. Of course, it falls under the broad umbrella of “horror”, but it doesn’t really sit well with most modern horror films. It’s not gory in any real sense, and there’s no found-footage pretense. At heart, it’s a ghost story, with plenty of atmospherics and things that go bump in the night.

And like the best ghost stories, it’s also a mystery. Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) lives in London sometime around the turn of the twentieth century with his young son, his wife having died in childbirth. Arthur works in a law firm, though he’s having a hard time of that. His firm has been having trouble with the estate of Alice Drablow, whose manor lies on an island in the northeast of England, connected to the nearby village only by a long, twisting causeway. Arthur is sent to review each and every scrap of paper in the old house to straighten everything out.

This is easier said than done. On the train, Arthur manages to make friends with the richest man in the area, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), but nobody else in town is at all welcoming. Even the local solicitor shoves a file into Arthur’s hands and insists he return to London immediately. Arthur remains in town, with the help of Sam and his somewhat batty wife (Janet McTeer), and sets to his work in the haunted mansion.

Now, what exactly the townsfolk are afraid of becomes clear pretty quickly, as does the identity of the ghostly woman in black (Liz White). Still, I’d rather not get into any of that, since Jane Goldman’s script and James Watkins’ direction unwinds the story so deliciously. The story is concise and makes its own internal sense, which seems a lot to ask of many contemporary horror movies. But it comes out in dribs and drabs, slowly taking form out of the seaside mists. The general outlines show up first — the perceptive viewer can pick up on them without much trouble — and then the details are filled in later. And none of this takes the form of dreadfully expository info-dumps.

Indeed, little of it takes much verbal form at all. Watkins’ sound team are artists with silences, almost entirely given to ambient noises with gentle touches of Marco Beltrami’s score just when needed for an accent. Being left alone on the island gives Radcliffe vast stretches of time to simply shut up and act; a lesser script would have him prattling on to himself the whole time, never trusting the audience to figure out for themselves what they’re being shown on the screen.

And this, in turn, gives us plenty of time to watch. This is not just an artfully-assembled film, but an artfully-presented one as well. Paul Ghirardani did a fantastic job designing and decorating the sets, and Tim Maurice-Jones — frequent cinematographer for Guy Ritchie — shot them beautifully. The washed-out grey-brown palette is highlighted with some lovely splashes of color, and Watkins shows a keen eye for lighting. The use of candles reflected in glass dolls’ eyes alone is captivating.

The story may not be the most original — even Susan Hill’s novel itself has been adapted numerous times before — but the beauty lies in the execution. Modern horror movies seem to forget that a ghost story is first and foremost a story, and it deserves good storytelling. In Watkins and Goldman, The Woman in Black has found it in spades.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunt permalink
    July 14, 2012 07:00

    It’s funny, I’m in the middle of watching this on my computer and my impression is that it’s around turn of the century too, given the wardrobe and other cues, except that reference to telephony and the automobiles says 1920’s, implying otherwise. I’m wondering if the anachronism is deliberate. Maybe they just didn’t know what they were doing.

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