Review: The Woman in Black (2012)

Daniel Radcliffe, who is of course famous for playing Harry Potter, succeeds in his first leading role outside the wizard franchise. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer and recent widower, who must leave his four-year-old son in London to travel to the remote northeast of England in order to straighten out the affairs of an old estate there. Radcliffe is not entirely believable as a widower (he still looks eighteen), but in every other respect he is more than competent. The role was a smart choice for him after Harry Potter: Kipps is different enough to show Radcliffe can play someone other than the famous wizard without being too different to alienate his large fan base. The role also builds on Radcliffe’s strengths. Though a rather ordinary man, Kipps investigates, which allows Radcliffe to industriously search for clues, to look tense and suspicious, and to convey suppressed fright—things Radcliffe has been accustomed to doing as the boy wizard. If this sounds patronizing, it shouldn’t. Basically, Kipps is a limited role, but Radcliffe plays it well.

The story is a classical, straightforward ghost tale. The film, adapted from Susan Hill’s novel, gathers all the familiar elements and gets them right. The local townspeople are mysteriously hostile to Kipps, except for the important and rich Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), who befriends the young lawyer. Are the locals hiding something? Should we be concerned that Bentley seems overly hospitable? And there is certainly something deeply sinister about old Eel Marsh House.

The location of the estate is something to behold. Eel Marsh House sits on a small wooded island in the middle of the marshes, and it is only reachable by a road that is submerged when the tide comes in. Completely isolated, once opulently decorated but now dilapidated, Eel Marsh is the quintessential haunted house. The filmmakers even throw in a haunted nursery with creepy old-fashioned toys.

What’s more, as my wife pointed out afterward, there are plenty of creepy Gothic movies set in Edwardian England, but this one is actually scary. The middle portion of the film, when Kipps explores the house in depth, is relentlessly frightening, and contains one great scene of suspense. Whose footsteps are we hearing behind that door? Kipps wants to find out, but he also doesn’t want to. The same goes for us.

8 out of 10

The Woman in Black (UK/Canada/Sweden, 2012)

Directed by James Watkins; screenplay by Jane Goldman based on the novel by Susan Hill; starring Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds.