Monday, February 13, 2012

The Woman in Black (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

 For those of you who might not know, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill has been something of a modern haunted house classic since its publication in 1983.  A new film version opened recently.  Starring Daniel Radcliffe, it chronicles the tale of a young solicitor sent to settle the estate of a reclusive widow in the Edwardian Era (just prior to the first World War).

Most haunted house stories work because the creators explore what seem like a simple, yet disturbing premise--that the past doesn't die.  Past tragedies continue to echo.  Shadows of sins from our parents' time and their parents before them reach out and mar the sunlit days of the present.  The Woman in Black provides a vivid example of exactly that.  As Arthur Kipps (the solicitor in question) uncovers a heart-rending tale going through the papers of Mrs. Alice Drablow, who lost her only son Nathaniel in a carriage accident on the local marsh so many years ago.  Things, of course, prove not quite as they initially seem.  Nathaniel had in fact been the son of Mrs. Drablow's sister.  Now, in rage over her loss, that sister prowls the house and village.  To see her, the Woman in Black, always presages the death of a child.  Little wonder the town where Kipps arrives seems awash in grief and terror!

All of which the filmmakers convey very well indeed!  The book, as per its medium, takes its time and can afford far more subtlety.  Films, after all, come rushing at you 25 frames per second for two hours!  One can admire the way the viewer remains at the edge of one's seat, often by the simple (but profoundly workable) trick of setting up shots of one character as if a second character should be present.  Sometimes, that second character even appears.

Likewise the film uses the generally creepy quality of dolls to great effect.

Mind you, none of that works very well without good actors bringing to life characters before our eyes.  Radcliffe, best known of course as Harry Potter (although he also played Rudyard Kipling's son in My Boy Jack as well as Alan Strang in Equus, etc.), really shows his acting chops here.  I'm a huge Potter fan yet never once did it seem like I was viewing the boy wizard.  Really, so many things came through in that young man's eyes--including a bone-deep despair kept at bay with only a resolution of steel (and that, barely).  No less impressive, albeit in a subtler way, were the rest of the cast.

But returning to the script--some of the changes made clearly intend to focus and telescope action.  In the novel Arthur begins the story single, then later weds and has a child.  For the film, he becomes a widower with a beloved four-year-old son, on the verge of losing his position.  All this throws things nicely into sharp relief.  Personally, I found less interesting the switch from hearing the fatal carriage accident from the past in the open where he can see absolutely nothing all the way to the horizon to a dense bank of fog.  That seemed a tad much.  But only personally.  Still worked.

The end, however, ultimately seems like it pulls its dramatic punch.  Somewhat.  It feels out-of-place for two Edwardian gentlemen to come up with the solution they did--find young Nathaniel's body and put it in his real mother's grave so they can be together.  Certainly that might occur to me, or anyone with an exposure to recent notions of spirituality.  And true, the film goes out of its way to point out (quite logically) that both Arthur and his new-found friend in the small village (played superbly as ever by the great Ciaran Hinds) have at least some familiarity with the Edwardian-era Spiritualist Movement.  So maybe I'm a little harsh?  Maybe.

Consider then the Woman in White.

No, I don't mean the Wilkie Collins novel.  Rather, Arthur's dead wife begins to appear as a counter-point to the film's ghostly antagonist.  To Arthur alone, and then at the very end in a way that gives a weird, melancholy note of hope, even redemption amid the creeping horror.  Not at all sure that made for a better story.  Seems to go against the grain of the whole idea--we don't really get to escape the consequences of the past, ever.  At most we can get lucky and avoid them, learn from them to counter their impact and (hopefully) not repeat the same errors.  Without looking for specific allegories about current events, seems to me this is the IDEA behind most ghost stories.  A valid and worthy idea, one that gets under the skin and resonates down to the bone.  But the current film version of The Woman in Black, while really excellent in most respects, falls short on that.  A nuance, to be sure, but an important one.

Which means the film ultimately remains quite good.  Fun and scary and well-done, but the ending doesn't quite measure up to what goes before.  As a result, that final shot lacks the real impact the filmmakers seemed to be aiming for.

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