Reviewers who’ve been referring to “The Woman in Black” as Daniel Radcliffe’s first chance to prove himself since performing the role of “Harry Potter” need to step outside of a movie theater now and then. He’s given two outstanding performances on Broadway — in a play called “Equus” and a musical called “How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying.”
Radcliffe is far past finessing his acting chops, as evidenced by how fast you’ll find yourself forgetting during “The Woman in Black” that you’re watching a man you once associated with wizards and wands — although a brief scene featuring a train winding though the countryside might trigger a short-lived flashback.
“The Woman in Black” is a beautiful film. It’s technically proficient in terms of cinematography (Tim Maurice-Jones), editing (Jon Harris) and music (Marco Beltrami) — and the storytelling is grand. It’s well written, acted and directed — and features outdoor images of breathtaking beauty filmed in England. It’s directed by James Watkins, and Jane Goldman wrote the screenplay — which is adapted from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill.
It’s also more frightening than you might imagine given its PG-13 rating. There’s more then one graphic scene involving suicide, and a central plotline involving children dying horrible deaths. Everything you expect in a scary flick is there, in relative moderation but with great effect. Strange noises. Flickering lights. Dolls with eyes that seem to follow you around the room.
The elements figure prominently in “The Woman in Black.” There’s a lot of rain, mist and mud — but also images of lovely greenery mixed with ominous-looking crosses and gravesites. You almost feel at times like you’re part of the dark, dank world occupied by Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) since the death of his wife Stella (Sophie Stuckey) during childbirth.
“The Woman in Black” seems at times a nearly non-stop homage to mystery writers of earlier times. Edgar Allen Poe. Alfred Hitchcock. Arthur Conan Doyle. Think Ravens and rocking chairs. And a cap, worn just briefly by a little boy, that mirrors those worn by detective Sherlock Holmes. The dialogue smartly elucidates both sides of the early 20th century spiritualism debate.
Radcliffe delivers a compelling performance as the tenacious yet tender man charged with finding a woman’s final will and testament inside an isolated mansion that folks in the nearest town would prefer he never enter. They’re frightened by just about everything — including the town’s lone automobile.
Its driver, Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), is Kipps’ sole sympathizer. Daily’s son is among the many who’ve died following sightings of “The Woman in Black.” Mrs. Daily (Janet McTeer) seems to have gone mad after the ordeal. Her twins, a pair of puppies, sup at a long dining room table — and get rocked to sleep in a cradle each night. The film also features Liz White as Jennet Humfrye and Shaun Dooley as Fisher — but the Radcliffe, Hinds, McTeer trio is what makes the film so superb.
My only problem with “The Woman in Black” is the ending — which ruins the perfectly idyllic image I’d have preferred to go home with by returning to something far more sinister. Watching someone else get haunted for ninety five minutes is one thing. Feeling like you might be next in line is quite another.
Coming up: Smashed!
Images: CBS Films