Title: The Woman in Black
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Director: James Watkins
Screenwriters: Jane Goldman
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds
The Woman in Black, a painterly, meticulous horror film from young English director James Watkins, boasts one of the most evocative locations in the genre’s history: a magnificently dilapidated mansion entirely surrounded by a marsh that floods at high tide. And Watkins does not play coy with the incredible scenery. His camera sweeps across it in glorious wide helicopter shots, mainlining the gloom and the beauty until we can’t tell the difference between the two. The Woman in Black is an almost total stylistic 180 from Watkins’ debut, Eden Lake: where that film was grimy and harrowing, this one is unsettling and alluring. It’s cloudy skies, candlelight peering through the murk, shapes lurking in the darkness.
It’s also a bit of a carnival ride, as these haunted-house ghost stories tend to be. In a shrewd post-Harry Potter move, Daniel Radcliffe plays a young lawyer who arrives in a remote northern village to wrap up the paperwork for the estate of a recently-deceased widow. The townsfolk are oddly unfriendly, and unwilling to direct him to where his late client lived. He persists, and soon arrives at the aforementioned mansion where he begins to unravel the mystery — and to be harassed by noises, visions, and poltergeists.
The centerpiece of The Woman in Black is a nearly dialogue-free half hour stretch of things going bump in the night with increasing intensity and determination. It’s pure atmosphere and tension, masterfully done and undeniably effective, though also (as is common) a bit arbitrary: just why do those wind-up toys all go berserk at that precise, calculated moment? The underlying story isn’t much, but it’s nice and morbid, killing off children with impunity, and ending with the deceptively grim suggestion that maybe that makes them better off. And Radcliffe, bushy-eyebrowed and convincingly adult, gives the sort of sturdy, workmanlike performance that makes me think he has a real career ahead of him. Though it’s still a bit odd to watch him down a glass of scotch.
— Eugene Novikov