DVD review: The Woman In Black (12)

Daniel Radcliffe and director James Watkins prove there’s life in ye olde Gothic ghost story yet.

James Watkins’ The Woman In Black is a significant film for a variety of reasons – first and foremost, it is proof positive that the Gothic ghost story can still possess chilling force even after a million increasingly desperate plunderings have left the genre looking shopworn.

The film also demonstrates that a modern sensibility (here on the part of director, writer and star, the winsome Daniel Radcliffe) can be profitably applied to a period genre – although it might be argued that the makers’ clearly avowed attempt to play down certain elements (such as period speech) does not work to its advantage.

The film also shows that the trappings of the classic Hammer film, notably the sumptuous, evocative period design – here a deliciously cluttered haunted house – are still reliably effective if utilised with intelligence and an appropriate sense of atmosphere.

Lastly, of course, it is proof that the imprimatur ‘Hammer Films’ is still capable of posthumous life, even though one might legitimately argue that the film is only nominally connected with the golden age of that studio (the new logo, for instance, with a series of comic strip-style images, is more redolent of the pre-credits design of the superhero movies drawn from Marvel and DC Comics).

But above all, perhaps, the success of the film – and it is a success, both commercially and, largely speaking, critically, though many critics have registered caveats – owes a great deal to the original source novel by the writer Susan Hill, Britain’s best exponent of the classic ghost story.

Director James Watkins was responsible for the powerful Eden Lake, and this film’s highly impressive cinematography by Tim Maurice-Jones perfectly captures its 19th-century feel.

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Kave Quinn’s exquisite production design has a notably contemporary sensibility, and it is this which is perhaps one of the film’s demerits. Daniel Radcliffe adroitly conveys the alienated, vulnerable qualities of the young widower who takes on the job of sorting out the papers of a dead woman in a remote village and finds himself mired (sometimes literally) in supernatural terror.

Radcliffe has taken the decision along with his director and writer to avoid period trappings in his performance, and his dialogue maintains an anachronistic feel, delivered with vaguely estuary English undertones (though never quite undercutting the reality of the situation).

But it is a tribute to James Watkins that all the tried and trusted apparatus of the Gothic horror story do not seem like a tired rehash of previous entries in the genre, even when Watkins borrows some effects from maestros of the past.

Watkins makes the most of his lead actor’s desolate, haunted blue eyes to suggest his protagonist’s separation from the real world. Also, of course, crucially, Arthur has his own beloved son who may become a victim of the vengeful ghost.

But above all else, The Woman In Black is proof of the indestructibility of the Gothic genre.