Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Woman In Black (2012)

The young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) has had a very hard time for the last few years. His wife (Sophie Stuckey) died during childbirth, leaving him to to raise his son Joseph (to be played by Misha Handley) alone with the help of nanny (Jessica Raine). The whole thing has left Arthur borderline suicidal, and has influence his job performance so much he's one mistake away from being fired.

His boss gives Arthur a - actually pretty harmless sounding - last chance assignment: to travel to a country village and check the documents one of the law company's female clients left behind in her house, Eel Marsh. Eel Marsh is connected to the village by a causeway that becomes impassable when the flood comes, possibly leaving anyone in it stranded far away from any help for hours.

Still, there's nothing dangerous in looking through documents, so the assignment sounds easy enough. To make good use of his unexpected stay in the country, Arthur plans to spend a nice weekend there with his son after his work there is finished, but that's before he understands what's really going on in the village.

For the place is plagued by a series of child deaths - all caused by the children themselves in one way or the other - that are connected to the ghost of a woman in black haunting Eel Marsh. Arthur will learn about that soon enough, though, and he'll feel bound to lay the ghost of the woman in black to rest to protect his own son.

While the output of the new old studio (that isn't really a studio as the old one was, of course) working under the revived Hammer moniker hasn't been without its problems, a film like The Woman in Black (adapting the same short novel by Susan Hill as the excellent - and very different - TV movie) goes a long way to convince me the people behind these films are taking the tradition they've positioned themselves in seriously.

The Woman (directed by James Watkins, whom I have now officially forgiven the script for the second The Descent movie) is a deliberately paced mood piece standing firmly in the tradition of the British ghost story and the gothic horror film (even if it takes place a few years later than usual in that latter sub-genre), the kind of film that takes its time building up its mood and clearly defining its characters before it lets the really spooky stuff happen, working hard and well for a sense of impending dread in its audience, until it culminates in a series of highly impressive scenes of horror that would never work as well as they do if they weren't so meticulously prepared through the build up.

The film also shares the often problematic obsession of contemporary scriptwriting with connecting its main character's background with what's going in the plot by any means necessary. For my tastes, this sort of thing often takes away from my enjoyment of a movie, because it - if it isn't applied exceedingly well - points out the how constructed a given plot truly is by going for an integration of all its elements that fits neither the way life works nor the way stories speak to me. Writer Jane Goldman (curiously also responsible for films as different from this one as each other as X-Men: First Class and Kick-Ass) mostly manages to avoid this feeling of overbearing artificiality (even though the film is of course as artificial as any other film), instead actually achieving - for most of the time, at least - the kind of thematic unity this sort of thing is always aiming for. Goldman's script - except for one moment of bad Hollywood kitsch right at the end that runs absolutely counter the mood of loss and dread running through the rest of The Woman in Black that made me roll my eyes and wait for a chorus of fucking angels, or at least Frank Capra's ghost - also allows itself to be very grim, seemingly sharing the feeling of loss hanging over its main character, not shying away from going to painful and unpleasant places without being gratuitous. It's really quite impressive.

"Impressive" is a proper description for most of the film, really, be it the decayed and truly creepy production design (milking the horrors of Victorian and Edwardian interior design and toys for all the horror they are worth), the sound design, Watkins ability to pace scenes of horror that could be unintentionally hilarious instead of frightening if done wrong just right, to Daniel Radcliffe's surprisingly nuanced and un-showy (generally, the worst mistake mainstream movie stars can make when actually having to act is trying to impress their audience with their seriousness and dedication to looking as if they're incontinent) acting, there's hardly anything the film doesn't do right.

I don't even mind the handful of jump scares. Which really is the highest compliment I can give a horror film.


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