The Woman in Black is arguably the greatest ghost story of all time. Susan Hill’s original book was a bestseller, the stage adaptation wowed theatre audiences across the world. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before it ended up on the silver screen, too.
This is Daniel Radcliffe’s first big movie break away from Harry Potter. In numerous interviews I’ve read, he assures us that he is very proud to have been part of the Potter series, but has been equally keen to emphasise that he is now ready to ‘prove himself’ in ‘more challenging’ roles. He impressed on Broadway and the West End in Equus, but – was he able to make the film transition from boy wizard to versatile actor?
The problem with Radcliffe is, I think, that one look at his face and you instantly think ‘hey, that’s Harry Potter!’ Or at least that’s what I thought, five minutes into The Woman in Black when Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps had been packed off to a mysterious location (Hogwarts) on a steam train (the Hogwarts’ Express) by his law firm boss (er, Hagrid?). But by the sixth minute, all thoughs of chocolate frogs and Quidditch had evaporated – Radcliffe is a good actor, even when not protecting Muggles from He Who Must Not Be Named. And hey, he’s even grown a beard, so give him half a chance.
Set in a dowdy Victorian village somewhere t’up North, it becomes clear from the moment Kipps leaves his train carriage that all is not as it seems. Wide-eyed children stare at him through windows, locals mutter mutinously as he passes them. Kipps is t’up North so as to sort the papers and property of the late Alice Drablow, a widow who died leaving no heir. We the audience are as bewildered as urbanite Kipps as the superstitious village-dwellers urge him to stay away from Mrs Drablow’s home, the remote and abandoned Eel Marsh House. The scene is set.
As a young widower with a four-year-old son, Kipps is a tortured soul, haunted by flashbacks of his dead wife. It is not long before he is sucked into the story of Eel Marsh House, the mysterious Drablows and the hideous Woman in Black, and he quickly pieces together a terrible chain of events. Tragedy strikes again and again in the village, and Kipps is determined to bring an end to the terror.
The Woman in Black is a crafty figure – she haunts Kipps whilst he works at Eel Marsh House, and continues her ghastly regime of revenge against the village. Her failure to forgive the death of her son pronouces her utterly unhinged, and it is the grief of the most deranged of mothers we see projected on the screen as she continues her wicked work.
Jane Goldman’s screen adaptation is good for edge-of-the-seat moments, and masterfully uses suspense to create an atmosphere so unnerving that you find yourself shrieking at various intervals. It drips Gothic – there are tombstones, ravens, faces at windows, scratched-out photographs, sinister muscial boxes, thunderstorms… The list is endless. But whilst the ending of Susan Hill’s novel left Kipps in a perptual state of torment, Goldman’s retelling is arguably far kinder. For those who haven’t seen the film, I won’t go into any more detail but, in my opinion, Goldman’s ending loses the sense of hideous horror of the book.
Definitely worth a watch – just make sure you don’t find yourself home alone for 24 hours afterwards…
The Woman in Black is in cinemas now.