Friday 10 February 2012

The deathly hollows: "The Woman in Black"

All our little boys are growing up. In a few weeks' time, we'll see Robert Pattinson as a smirking arriviste sleeping his way to the top in the costume drama Bel Ami; for the moment, we must make do with Daniel Radcliffe as the widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps in James Watkins' big screen version of The Woman in Black, Susan Hill's period ghost story-turned-stage sensation. Radcliffe is presumably a selling point for those viewers too young even to remember the not dissimilar The Others a decade ago, but he's hardly the film's strongest suit: too fresh of face to convince as someone who's married, been bereaved and had a small child of his own in between. However much we see of them, whether in impossible-to-avoid franchise sequels or on the red carpet promoting impossible-to-avoid franchise sequels, today's young actors don't half lack for life experience; in this instance, you don't have to be a David Thomson-ish nostalgic to think back to the studio era, when our movie stars made fewer films, but seemed to age between them, perhaps because they were off fighting in wars or bars, or wrestling with Ernest Hemingway.

I digress. At any rate, this top-dollar casting is something of a pity, because in most other respects, The Woman in Black is prodigiously well-appointed. The remote property on the Yorkshire coast to which Kipps is dispatched ("just an old place, cut off from the world") has rather more character than the studio-bound haunted houses in Hammer horrors of yore, offering up stubbornly locked rooms, floorboards that seem to conceal gaping, deathly hollows, and the world's creepiest mechanical toy collection, even before the ghosts of several children, and the vengeful spirit of the title, make their presence felt. Also in situ: such classy supporting presences as Ciaran Hinds, as a stoutly rational landowner, and Janet McTeer as his wife, the week's second most prominent hysteric, who insists on bringing her dogs to the dinner table, and carving picture messages from her own dead son into the nearest available surface.

As a scare machine, The Woman in Black functions fine. Watkins paid his dues on 2008's hyper-efficient hoodie horror Eden Lake, and so knows how to do suspense and gathering communities, whether of the living, the dead, or the living dead; here is a director who displays a certain skill with subtle chills, and that prowess shouldn't be dismissed at a time when most Hollywood output in this particular genre resorts all too often to loud bangs and crashes to get a rise from its audience. The film is at its most effective whenever it sets its protagonist to pottering around this mansion, as in the mid-film allnighter in which the place's nasty secrets first emerge from the woodwork to reveal themselves to Kipps. (One senses Radcliffe is going to feel terribly exposed when he eventually signs up for a movie that doesn't enjoy this high level of production design; at the moment, he's still hiding among the furniture, and hoping no-one mistakes him for wooden.)

It's whenever the film ventures outside, and outside familiar genre territory, that it threatens to underwhelm. While you can sense Watkins stretching himself with the generous budget afforded to him - a setpiece involving a sunken carriage very clearly builds on the yucky terror evoked by Kelly Reilly's garbage-dump submersion in Eden Lake - The Woman in Black finally feels less ambitious in its intent than even the middling multiplex filler of last year's The Awakening. The script, by Jane (Kick-Ass) Goldman, proves signally uninterested in its historical moment; it's also unable, when it eventually reaches for it, to land the emotional punch the Iberian-influenced The Others and The Orphanage managed. These short sharp shocks should fit the bill of a Friday or Saturday night with a large crowd, but any more lasting tremors would seem beyond it.

The Woman in Black opens in cinemas nationwide today.

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