“The Woman in Black” tells a ghost story. Edwardian lawyer Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter series of films) has spent four years trying to get over the death of his wife in childbirth. To save his career he must succeed at the out-of-town job his senior partner sends him to do.
Kipps must go to a remote English village where one of the firm’s clients has recently died in a big, old, spooky house surrounded by the sea for twelve hours or so everyday. The place is full of papers that must be sorted before the estate can be settled and the local solicitor who has been hired to do the job has refused to work much on it.
After arranging for his son to be brought to him for the weekend, Kipps sets off for the country. The villagers are all unfriendly (except for middle-class Daily, played by the great Ciaran Hinds, and his wife, played by Janet McTeer, who is slightly nutty about the loss, years ago, of their child, a son). The village lawyer positively stands in the way of Kipps’s visit to the mansion.
But he does get out there and he does make progress on his work. Unfortunately he is often distracted, too, by odd sights—of a woman in black standing in the family graveyard, for example—and sounds—of a rocking chair rocking away in an upstairs room.
When Kipps returns to the village he finds that a little girl has swallowed lye. She dies, and the villagers blame Kipps’s visit. They insist that whenever anyone sees the woman in black some local child dies. We have seen a triple child suicide in the opening flashback, and another example of a kid’s death—by self-immolation—follows Kipps’s second visit to the manse.
Then he realizes that his son is being brought into the danger zone. Kipps and Daily work out a way to pacify the ghost. But director James Watkins dramatizes this opportunity using the same techniques he’s used the rest of the film—setting up a brief shock and then moving on to the next set-up—missing some of his opportunity for suspense and tactile horror.
This is sort of the history of the story. Written originally as a novel by long-time Daily Telegraph columnist Susan Hill, the story was made into a play which has run and run and run for a remarkable two decades in London’s West End, in the little Fortune Theater. My recollection of the production is that it requires one actor and someone to pull the fishing line tied to the rocking chair.
Nevertheless, the film version of “The Woman in Black” is atmospheric, it can get its audience to jump occasionally, and the ending is satisfactory if not altogether new. Nothing much should be new about a ghost story, after all. They are always about our past.
Radcliffe is all right in his part, though it doesn’t really ask much of him. Hinds and McTeer show off their considerable talent, together (during a dining room scene when she begins to freak out and he calms her with a whiff of chloroform) and singly (when she explains everything to Kipps at the mausoleum and when he pulls Kipps and a little corpse out of the bog using a rope and his motorcar).
But they don’t really have a great story to tell or one with a lot of shocks in it. I’m reminded of the beginning of M.R. James’s ghost story “A Warning to the Curious” when the nervous guest introduces himself to the two golfers with whom he is sharing a hotel out-of-season. It seems he has found an Anglo-Saxon crown during an archeological dig. The duffers congratulate him. Then he explains, shivering, why he has to put the crown back.
Now that’s a Ghost Story.