Sunday 12 February 2012

Review: The Woman in Black

The movie of "The Woman in Black" is far from the first time this story has been told. Susan Hill's novel has previously been a well-received TV adaptation and the second-longest running play on the West End (behind Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap").

I went to see the stage version last month. If you're in London, I cannot recommend it enough. It's a superb, old fashioned ghost story, and elicits some genuine jumps from the audience. This is particularly impressive considering it's performed with a very small cast. It also (along with the television version) takes liberties with the original novel. In the book, the main character is an old man who tells the story about his youth. In the play, the old man is looking for advice from an actor who helps him to tell his story.

This version is far more stripped down and straightforward, which is good, because the story is fairly simple. A young lawyer goes to a remote area to work on the paperwork of a recently passed woman. While he's there, he starts being stalked by a ghost. To give much more away would be to do you a disservice.

It's not quite as strong as the stage play, but it's still a fairly fresh movie and belies it's 12A certificate by being genuinely quite frightening in places. Some may say that the jumps that are elicited are "cheap", but that's only fair when it's in a movie that doesn't have anything else to offer. The jumps in this are the punchlines to the increasing tension created by each scene - in fact, some of the moments that work best are the ones where you're expecting something to happen and nothing does.

Daniel Radcliffe is good in it, playing a man recently bereaved. He constantly looks pale and drawn out, and actually has to carry a lot of the film almost entirely by himself. In silence, no less.

To give you an idea how well this suceeds, it can be compared favourably to the movie where John Cusack spends a night being haunted by a hotel room ("1408", based on the Stephen King movie of the same name), which was interesting but flawed. Radcliffe comes off better here than John Cusack did. And I say that as a John Cusack fan. And, for that matter, a Stephen King fan.

The film looks beautiful throughout, internally and externally, and it uses darkness better than any movie since "Rec". The cinematography, the design, the lighting - all excellent. Great work by all involved, and all brought together well by veteran Horror director James Watkins.

The only major issue I have with it is that it kind of falls betwixt and between the 12A and 15 rating. It feels like it occasionally wants to be more unpleasant than it is, and I'm not massively keen on the slightly tacked-on ending. While I like the narrative turn, I think the choice made softens what should be quite a hard blow, and that felt possibly a little too intended not to upset anyone too much. It's a shame, because the ending could have been so, so effective, and it's slightly neutered.

Otherwise, though, Jane Goldman is the real star of this one. After Stardust, Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class, she's become the queen of adaptations. "The Debt" was, I believe original, and she cowrote a solid screenplay there, but I'm now massively interested to see if she can turn out something completely original and entirely in her own voice.

Overall, it's mostly successful. It's nice to see the new Hammer Studios working well with the kind of material that the original studio made its name with. Hopefully, there will be more where this came from.

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