Directed by James Watkins, screenplay by Jane Goldman based upon the 1983 Susan Hill novel of the same name, THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a tidy little tale of gothic horror, of the real paranormal variety as opposed to the psychological anomaly variety. Hammer Films is involved in production as is Cross Creek Pictures and CBS Films, the latter responsible for such recent stinkers as The Mechanic remake and Extraordinary Measures, and have on their docket oh so many more.
Daniel Radcliffe turns in a workman like performance in his transition from child star to adult actor, and is carried in no small measure by Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer (as the Daily’s) and their characters’ three dogs. The plot is a bit lean and a bit contrived, but the cinematography, the direction, the sets, the costumes and the cast do their best with what they’ve got.
In a nutshell, Arthur Kipps, a young Edwardian Era solicitor, has been grieving the loss of his wife for four years which has made him a liability in the work place. Given one last chance to redeem himself by his boss (who steals that scene,) he is sent to the sparse village of Crythin Gifford to tidy up the papers of the lately deceased widow Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh and possibly sell the old place, a dreary island estate connected to the mainland by a precarious causeway that is flooded every high tide. Kipps is met with hostility at every turn, save by the innkeeper's wife and the local rich folks, the Daily’s (who steal those scenes,) who are most understanding, although Ms. Daily is a bit off, appearing to channel the spirit of her deceased son from time to time by carving up whatever is at hand and talking in funny voices. Back at Eel Marsh, something is clearly amiss as well, as spirits wander the house and grounds, inconsiderately disrupting Kipps’ endless inventory and investigation. And the kicker is, the local kids keep going bonkers and doing themselves in every time the film starts to drag.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to figure out what is happening. Radcliffe is left on his own, or with a dog (who steals those scenes) far too long doing, well, Edwardian Era lawyer stuff and wandering the old manse, lighting lamps and candles, trying keys in locks, playing with old clockwork toys, rummaging through boxes; looking by turns grief-stricken, curious, frightened, fatigued and caring, while the main spook gets spookier and the village kids continue dropping like flies until the film’s resolution and climax, which is a bit contrived as well.
As gothic films go, it ain’t half bad, and as Hammer films go, it’s one of the better ones. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee might have felt right at home here. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is better left forgotten at the popcorn stand.