17 May 2012

The Woman in Black

Directed by: James Watkins
Written by: Jane Goldman
Full credits at IMDb

Hammer Films announces that it's back in business with The Woman in Black, which employs some of the renowned horror studio's flagship cliches: misty marshes, Victorian/Edwardian mores, and gloomy Brits. As directed by James Watkins, whose previous feature Eden Lake was efficient but bland, it's a masterpiece of atmosphere, its horror grounded in the well-defined psychological reality of its protagonist. (The script is by Jane Goldman, who also had a hand in last summer's emotionally rich X-Men: First Class.) Daniel Radcliffe, fresh off Harry Potter and commanding the film with his anguished and expressive gaze, plays Arthur Kipps, a London lawyer sent north to close an estate; it's located in a unwelcoming town, the estate itself amid a bleak landscape wherein a Baskerville hound might prowl. Outdoor white-out fogs compete with the shadowy interiors, dark corners and corridors of the dead woman's mansion—dusty, decrepit, and dark even by daylight—where things have a tendency to go bump and pitter-patter.

The house and hamlet are haunted literally by the title character; but the cursed country town where it's located is also haunted figuratively by the many deaths of its children—Arthur fits right in! The Woman in Black is a film awash in dead kids; for Arthur, they are an understandable manifestation of his torment: his own son, after all, was responsible for killing in childbirth his beloved wife, for whom he still mourns years later, his eyes heavy with bereavement. (We see her—in drawings, flashbacks, and fantasies—dressed in an angelic white, the negative-image of the title's murderous ghost.) Kipps's mere presence in the town costs the lives of many children, the symbolic result of his implicit resentment of his own son. The crumbling estate becomes a physical representation of Kipps's and the town's griefs—as black and pernicious as the deepest recesses of their respective souls. The pleasures of Watkins's film are the astoundingly bleak setting and its moon- and candle-lighted creepery; but what makes it satisfying are the coherent psychological underpinnings. Grade: B

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