Can it really have been about a year since I reviewed a film? I have watched several dozen films in the past year, including an installment of “Twilight”, the searing end of “Harry Potter” and “Shark Night” – did none of these films move me to writing? Apparently not.
Today, however, I went to see “The Woman in Black”, arguably the first time we’ve seen Daniel Radcliffe do anything on film since the end of “Harry Potter”. A gothic period piece, set in a dismal, marshy village and a dilapidated, but rather sprawling house. The film is interestingly partially produced by Hammer (known for some of the greatest looking women, fake blood and Dracula movies ever made in the 1970s). Hammer films have generally been considered over-produced, campy and frivolous. They are also generally of a relentless, powerful horror style, one which is comfortable adhering to genre conventions and making a more traditional horror film. “The Woman in Black” is no exception.
I think it’s safe to say that I am very familiar with horror films, I do not scare easily. That’s not to say I don’t get scared, I don’t respond (film is significant, I am affected by it.) because I do. I squeal, weep, laugh, etc. etc. I generally walk away from most horror offerings more interested and invigorating than truly freaked out. Over the course of my life very few movies have honestly frightened me. (TV productions of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “The Shining”, “13 Ghosts” and “Mirrors” being the short list.)
“The Woman in Black” honestly frightened me.
The story is about a young widower, with a four year old son. In order to preserve his career, he takes a job out in the marshy northern countryside, he has to go to the decidedly creepy, empty home of a recently deceased character we never see and sort through their shamefully disordered papers in order to get their true will. He has to actually go there because the town lawyer is being completely unhelpful. Immediately upon his arrival, everyone our hero, Arthur (Dan Radcliffe) encounters seems to want him to leave. Eventually be finds himself at the terrifically scary house, beyond a marsh that floods with the tide, and thus isolated for most of the film, though, he has a little scruffy dog with him some of the time. He experiences haunting phenomena and visions of a woman in black mourning attire. As his time in the town goes on, two young girls die in unpleasant accidents, and the townspeople become ever more convinced he should leave. They ostentatiously blame him for the deaths of his children, as he continues to sort through letters and uncover the superstitions of the town, the house and the visions he keeps having.
Eventually, Arthur (and the audience) discover that the town is plagued by the untimely deaths of children as a result of the spectral woman. The ghost is a woman who’s son was taken from her, and adopted by her sister because of his mother’s presumed insanity. After this, her son drowns in the marshes and his body is never recovered, as a result his mother hangs herself in his nursery. She also vows never to forgive her sister for taking the boy or for his loss. The curse which haunts the town is that when she is seen, a child dies. (A classic: you took my baby, and now I’m taking yours) Of course, being that Arthur is messing around in the house – Arthur sees her a lot. This ability to sympathize with and connect to this entity is fueled by his own troubled visions of his wife (an angelic blonde, lady in white) It becomes apparent that his son is coming to join him in the village, so in an effort to appease the woman’s trouble spirit and thus protect his own little boy (who is portrayed by the most beautiful, cherubic child I have ever seen.) Arthur finds her son’s lost body, and reunites them in the grave – he does so with the help of a gentleman in the town who lost his own son as a result of the woman in black and who’s wife is a sweet, but troubled medium. However, this fails to do the trick and the narrative ends with sufficient unpleasantness to make the audience feel honestly uncomfortable.
The film is incredibly atmospheric, making extensive use of light, flickering candles, the gloom of the gray village and the gothic mansion, as well as the setting in 19th century England during the height of spiritualism. A moment in history where the business of the dead and the interaction between worlds is both recognized and widely acknowledged as possible. The film isn’t violent, or gory – but dark, and menacing. Filled with the kind of seeping discomfort that encircles you and follows you out of the theater. The honest-to-God heebie-jeebies.
One of the most interesting things about this is, naturally, seeing Daniel Radcliffe be someone other than Harry Potter. He is as impressive as anyone would think, and is almost unrecognizable compared to his early time as Harry. The character is at least 26 or 27 (married, lost wife, four year old child, lawyer…at least 26), and while it’s pretty routine for actors in their mid-20s – 30s to play characters in their early 20s, and for actors up to 25 to play teenagers, Radcliffe, who is ONLY 22 (wtf have I been doing with MY life?!) successfully portrays someone much older, without seeming ridiculous. He’s also much more understated, Harry tends to do a lot of moping, whining and gnashing of teeth, but of course, from book three forward that’s how Rowling wrote him. Things that may have seemed like they were the run over of someone reaching adulthood on screen, seem much more to be characteristics of Harry than Dan. It’s also easy to forget who he is, which is generally difficult with very famous British screen actors – it’s only the most exceptional people who get lost in their portrayals, and that is evident here.
Great movie – I do not expect to sleep easy tonight!