Sunday, February 12, 2012

Movie review: The Woman in Black

Word is that Daniel Radcliffe, in an effort to avoid being forever known as "Harry Potter," is selecting his roles carefully.  Understandable and admirable. How many actors, once they hit it big, are content to ride the gravy train all the way to the end of the line? (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, and Julia Roberts are three names that come to the fore when considering such matters.)  Nonetheless, Mister Radcliffe should perhaps have been a bit more selective when considering the lead role for James Watkins new supernatural flick, The Woman in Black.  

Set in the 19th century,  the story is straight-forward haunted house fare.  Recently-widowed London lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) must leave his young son, Joseph, in the care of his governess so that Arthur can travel to the Oxford village of Crythin Gifford, there to sort through the papers of a recently-deceased woman.  Said papers are, of course, scattered about in an isolated and dilapidated manor which the local villagers fear to approach.  Undaunted Kipps goes about his work and quickly learns why.  The ghost of a mournful mother lurks about the place, exacting a vengeful toll on the nearby village whenever she is disturbed.

The film, based on an eponymous novel by Susan Hill, has it charms.  Like any good ghost flick, it succeeds in creating an unsettling ambiance.  Lots of mist and shadow; a delightfully eerie house with creepy toys (glass-eyed wind-up monkeys, Victorian dolls, and the like), baleful, horror-stricken expressions from the cast, and a few cheap gotchas to cause viewers to jump in their seats.  In fact, through the first two-thirds of the viewing, I was convinced that I was watching a really good flick.  But, ultimately, I'm afraid the story fails. 

The best ghost flicks leave viewers wrestling with questions.  Might the portrayed events be explained by a combination of unlikely circumstances?  Or is there something more to it?  Another approach is to introduce a twist in the ending that re-frames the entire story.  (Alejandro Amenábar's The Others, is a great example.)  The Woman in Black, alas, eschews both these approaches in favor of a disappointing ending that seems both condescending and half-baked.  I don't want to let slip any spoilers, so I'll say no more about it. But the ending didn't work for me.

Daniel Radcliffe does well enough in the lead.  The role primarily requires him to do a lot of terrified gaping --a skill he undoubtedly mastered in his Harry Potter roles.  But the best acting came from veteran Ciarán Hinds and from Janet McTeer as Mr. and Mrs. Dailey, a wealthy couple with a dark tragedy in their past. 

All in all, The Woman in Black isn't a complete waste of time.  An adequate Saturday afternoon diversion.  Mildly entertaining and soon forgotten.

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