Review: The Woman in Black (2012 movie)

Daniel Radcliffe (best known for playing Harry Potter) is quite good as a young attorney is Britain circa 1900. His only family is a four-year-old son (played by Radcliffe’s real-life godson). His wife had died giving him birth four years ago, and Radcliffe is still grieving.

The firm he works for has been understanding, but they let him know that if he wants to keep his position he’ll need to do a credible job spending several days at the remote and now abandoned house of a recently deceased elderly client who had left her papers in disarray.

The house, a mansion really, is located on an island and can be reached only via a one-lane road across a tidal marsh from the nearest village. The road is impassable for a few hours twice each day because it’s awash at high tide.

The plan is for Radcliffe to work there for the better part of a week, after which his nanny will bring the son up from London to visit.

But when Radcliffe arrives in the village, he’s told that the solitary inn has no record of his booking and they can put him up for at most one night. All the locals seem generally nervous, hostile, and anxious for him to leave, save only the local squire, a wealthy man played by Ciarán Hinds (Mance Rayder, the king beyond the Wall in HBO’s Game of Thrones), who has no patience with superstition. He invites Radcliffe to dine and later to stay at his home.

There Radcliffe meets Hinds’s wife, played by Mary Stockley. Hinds and Stockley are each over six feet tall, and in an interview Radcliffe (who’s 5’5″) joked that after a day spent shooting scenes with them he needed an osteopath to deal with the crick in his neck.

Like her husband, Stockley is friendly and helpful, but she’s also very troubled, having lost her son. Quite a number of the village’s children have died violently, it seems.

Radcliffe finds the mansion and its gardens in disrepair, with piles and piles of papers lying on, in, and under things in almost every room. Apparently no piece of correspondence was ever thrown out or even filed. At least there are no electric bills to worry about, given there’s no electricity and Radcliffe has to work by a mix of candlelight and whatever daylight filters in.

As he does, he starts seeing and hearing increasingly strange things. This is part of the formula of ghost stories, of course, and the scares aren’t particularly original, but I found them well done, so much so -— and I’m not proud to admit this -— that it took me a few days to get through the movie because, grown man that I am, I kept getting so spooked that I’d turn it off and read something, postponing additional viewing until the next night, the next dark, lonely night. (I tried watching some of it during the day. It didn’t help that much.)

Radcliffe’s character may be morose, but he’s way braver than I am. After the first significant scare I’d have been back across that causeway if I had to dog-paddle at high tide, but Radcliffe sticks it out, determined to keep his job, and when he hears something go bump or sees a ghostly figure he picks up his candle and goes to investigate.

While there are some original ideas in the story, much of it is conventional, so the film’s merits lie mainly in the atmosphere, the acting, and the style, all of which I thought were pretty good. I would like to watch it again someday straight through when I work up the nerve.

The film’s ending I found rather moving.


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