Hammer's back with a solid haunted house film of the straight gothic variety. Based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill and adapted by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), The Woman In Black follows young, widowed attorney Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) as he travels to a small English village to settle the affairs of a recently deceased recluse, Mrs. Drablow. The local villagers warn Kipps away from the Drablow estate, a secluded mansion accessed only by a marshland road. Once high tide hits, the estate is utterly sequestered from the mainland, and Kipps, trapped inside, soon learns the secret of the vengeful spirit targeting the children of the village.
The Woman In Black is not necessarily a substantial film, but it's a film that offers unqualified entertainment and a maturity of style that serve it well. The movie opens with three little girls playing at a tea party in an attic, when something unknowable comes over them and they slowly rise, crunching their tea cups beneath their boots as they walk deliberately to the dormer windows, open them and simultaneously step out. The scene is unsettling and makes a striking visual impact, and the film builds decisively from there. This is haunted house cinema done right, working hard to sustain an atmosphere of dread that permeates every moment of the film.
While The Woman In Black does rely on quite a few jump scares, the true source of disquiet are the tone and scope of the film, creating a sense of oppressive isolation that the viewer cannot shake. As the Drablow estate is isolated, so is Kipps, a man widowed far too young, with a toddler son who senses his unhappiness but cannot abate it. The cinematography, by Tim Maurice-Jones, is striking and expansive. A wide shot of the road leading to Drablow's estate, gloomily immersed in the encroaching marsh at high tide, is simply unearthly. We feel Kipps' inexorable solitude, and it is chilling.
And anyway, those jump scares are extremely effective, often arriving on unexpected beats and delivering very stylish, gothic visuals--a meticulously creaking rocking chair with no occupant; rusty, broken mechanical toys that whir and chime of their own accord--that will certainly rattle you. While the movie builds most of its suspense on the macabre tone and bleak photography, it's not short on legitimate scares, forged on old tricks done well: a face in a window, an abruptly moving shadow, those godforsaken toys. But all in all, the horror in The Woman In Black is far more subtle than most movies today, and that made it far more potent for this jaded viewer.
Daniel Radcliffe is quite good in the movie. His performance is strong but understated, and enough unlike Harry Potter to distance him from the formidable franchise. While he spends most of the movie reacting to external events rather than initiating action himself, he does it all very well. And even though Kipps makes some stupid decisions (he's told by the always great Ciarán Hinds, "Don't go chasing shadows, Arthur," only to turn around and do precisely that the moment he's in the Drablow estate), Radcliffe gives the character a gravity that really works. He sells the role, and the audience's belief in and sympathy for Kipps is crucial to the success of the movie.
Without giving anything away about the ending, there is a resolution that seems far too pat, later revealed to be more complicated than originally presented, and I like that. All told, The Woman In Black--a straight ghost story with few bells and whistles but plenty of atmosphere--is engaging and fun. There are no tricks here. Nothing will surprise you about The Woman In Black--except how good it is.