The Woman in Black is adapted for the big screen thirty years after Susan Hill wrote the chilling ghost story
In his post-Potter debut, Daniel Radcliffe plays young solicitor Arthur Kipps, who is sent to organise the estate of a deceased widow who lived in a rambling house in the middle of miles of marshland.
With a dressing down from his boss in London for working through a smog of melancholy after the death of his wife in childbirth, Kipps is sent to the North East to sort through the papers of Lady Drablow at Eel Marsh House. What works so well with the West End stage production of The Woman in Black, which has enjoyed a 20-year stretch of success, is the structure of the narrative – told by Kipps as a middle aged man who is attempting to record the terrifying experience he endured at the house on the marsh, we are given snippets of flashbacks. Screenplay writer Jane Goldman has rejected this storytelling device – and changed the ending – so that what we get is a classic ghost story.
Full of bumps in the night, banging doors and long skirts billowing round corners, one cannot help but see Radcliffe’s time spent in Eel Marsh House as an extended stay in the Prisoner of Azkaban’s Shrieking Shack, and it is difficult not to imagine the abstract glimpses we get of the ghostly woman in black, with her hollow white face and statuesque poise, as Voldemort in a dress.
But once you get over the fact that Harry Potter is now a muggle, and a very troubled one with family baggage, it’s easy to immerse yourself in the gothic setting and storyline. The local townspeople have had to endure tragedy after tragedy, as most of their children have died painful, violent deaths. Legend has it that when someone sees the woman in black, who appears anywhere and any time she fancies, a child will die. Kipps isn’t a superstitious man, and, ignoring the warnings uttered from pallid peasants on the streets, stays in Eel Marsh House for long stretches of time to prove to his superiors that he’s up to the job.
The tension of the film is relentless, and it’s jumps galore. Wide-angle, slow-panning shots mean the ghost comes in to view unexpectedly – you see her out the corner of your eye before Radcliffe does, so it’s like a constant, exhaustive pantomime game of ‘she’s behind you!’ The 20-minute stretch of Radcliffe’s sleepover at the house, in which there is no speech, just sputtering candles and wide-eyed terror punctuated with the odd crescendo, is almost unbearable.
The supporting cast, including Daniel Cerqueira and Ciaran Hinds, provides much-needed relief as the villagers living in terror. The Woman in Black is a jumpy fright fest carried well by Radcliffe, but is let down by its ending, which is unnecessarily sentimental.
The Woman in Black is out at cinemas now, and is published by Vintage.