Mark Reviews Movies

The Woman in Black


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Watkins

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Tim McMullan, Mary Stockley, Shaun Dooley, Misha Handley, Jessica Raine

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 2/3/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 2, 2012

This is a movie assembled almost entirely from the old adage that nothing is scarier than the image of a closed door. Whoever first said that was on to something, and, at times, The Woman in Black seems to be as well. Director James Watkins presents us with an imposing manor (with the name Eel Marsh House, sitting at the end of Nine Lives Causeway, no less), impossibly situated on a wooded hill that towers out of the middle of a moor that has its own tidal current. One is free to travel to this house; it's the getting away that's difficult. The house seems to exist solely to mock the primary rule of real estate.

Technically, Eel Marsh House is for sale; its owner recently died. Don't expect anyone in the nearby town of Crythin Gifford to buy it anytime soon. Their dread of the manor is based on more than just its geography. Some time ago, a series of tragic events occurred on the outskirts of and within the property, the repercussions of which still haunt the townsfolk to this very day.

The nuts and bolts of the backstory barely matter, especially since every eventual revelation only confirms what we suspect during the alarmingly frank prologue, which watches in helpless horror (Slow motion aids in supplying that effect) as a trio of young girls interrupt their tea party so that they might glance at an unseen figure and walk out of an attic window to their deaths below. The plot, in turn, has nothing more to it than to watch as the protagonist slowly comes to realize what everyone in the town knows and what we already suspect.

He is Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), a lawyer in London struggling to keep up with work, bills, and raising his son Joseph (Misha Handley) after the death of his wife (Sophie Stuckey) during childbirth four years prior. Our first sight of him is in a mirror, holding a razor to his throat before being called out of his morose state by the voice and appearance of his wife. Perhaps this entertaining of his suicidal thoughts explains why Kipps is so prone to put himself in life-threatening situations, like wandering around Eel Marsh House, tempting the ghost within, and running into a burning office building.

Jane Goldman's screenplay (based on the novel by Susan Hill) succinctly establishes the entirety of Kipps' story with a glimpse of an overdue bill here, a drawing of him by his son with a frown that takes up half his face there, and flashbacks to his wife's death when necessary. His boss (Roger Allam) fills in the rest: He has one last chance to prove his dedication to the law firm by traveling to Crythin Gifford to gather all of the documents in Eel Marsh House to ensure that the will of deceased owner the firm has on file is indeed her last.

The people of the town don't want Kipps there. Fisher (Shaun Dooley), who runs the boarding house, insists that Kipps does not have a reservation for the week and that there are no vacancies; his wife (Mary Stockley) offers him the attic—the same where the three girls met their unfortunate end—for the night. The local solicitor (Tim McMullan) offers Kipps the documents he has in his possession and informs him of the next train out back to London.

Going up to the house is out of the question in all of their minds. The only helpful party is Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), whose son also died at a young age and whose wife (Janet McTeer) has gone a little mad since then. She believes her dead son speaks through her, offering Kipps a warning in the image of a hanging figure carved into the dinner table. Sam doesn't buy into the concept of ghosts because, given the option between imagining his son in peace or lost as a wandering spirit, he would rather the former (The movie itself incongruously tries to have the best of both otherworldly scenarios in its resolution).

Eventually, Kipps manages to make the trek to Eel Marsh House, and this where the real meat of the movie arrives. The house itself, massive and daunting on that trip through the barren wasteland up to it, is actually quite tight inside. Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones' minimal lighting and production designer Kave Quinn's confined spaces within the house offer a claustrophobic atmosphere with long, narrow hallways and no shortage of closed doors at the ends of them. Watkins immerses Kipps' roaming tours of the house in relative silence—Marco Beltrami's ambient score or the rocking of a chair behind one door with which none of Kipps' keys works.

Of course, every closed door must be opened at some point, and it's in this regard that The Woman in Black cannot fulfill the promise of its moody backdrop. The movie becomes an aural assault in its startle moments—the loud bang of a pipe bursting to life and, most routinely of all, the sudden sting of strings on the score when a ghastly face appears out of nowhere. Ultimately, the movie's ability to frighten is directly proportionate to one's fear of the vision of the eponymous phantom in white cake makeup and screaming at the top of her lungs.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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