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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Woman in Black

Before I start rolling out reviews for this fairly packed week, I just realised that I forgot to post my thoughts on The Woman in Black, which came out a couple of weeks ago. This is especially shameful since I've read the book on which it is based and everything! Ah well, better late than never, I suppose.


With Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard reinventing the horror genre on one side and endless English-language remakes of European and Asian horror cinema on the other, there is something to be said for so traditional - and decidedly British - a ghost story as The Woman In Black.

Very loosely based on the 1982 Susan Hill novel of the same name, The Woman in Black finds Daniel Radcliffe as a young widower, a single father and a lawyer not very good at his job who travels to an eerie rural town to consolidate the estate of an old woman who lived alone in a secluded old house, cut off from society by rising tides and wet marshland. It's not long however, before he finds that things are even more sinister in the old house and its nearby town as he is confronted with the ghostly titular character and the pain and death that follows in her wake.

Like I said, it's very traditional and, though the film is certainly not without its flaws, its old school storytelling and ghostly scares feels like a breath of fresh air. It's not for nothing, after all, that The Woman In Black is the film responsible for resurrecting that decidedly traditional trademark of British horror, Hammer Films. There's no gleeful bloodletting, cynical "torture porn" or creepy Japanese girls to be found here: this old fashioned ghost story gets old fashioned creepy atmospherics in the form of creaking unearthly sounds coming from just off the side of the screen; a blue-grey, almost tangibly cold colour pallet and, of course, a ghostly apparition appearing out of nowhere at the most inopportune of times.

This does mean, therefore, that the only way to get any sort of chills from so atmospheric a horror film is to watch it on the big screen, in a darkened cinema, with a fully functioning surround sound system. A well-equipped home theatre might do the trick as well, I suppose, but The Woman In Black is really not something you want to watch in the middle of a day, on an old television set in a brightly lit room. This is exactly the sort of film that cinemas were made for.

Sadly, while there is much to appreciate about The Woman In Black, it does have enough severe flaws to stop it from getting a higher rating or ever truly reaching classic status. First and perhaps foremost is the crucial miscasting of Daniel Radcliffe. Don't misunderstand me, I thought he was very good in the Harry Potter films and got better as they went along and,  though he's not yet a great actor, he's certainly a perfectly decent one. The problem is that coming straight off the Harry Potter films, he just seems far too young to be playing a character that is as world-weary and as old-beyond-his-years as his character in this film so clearly is.

This is particularly strange because, while he's a bad fit for this character in the film, he would actually have been perfect had they stuck closer to his characterization in the book. This is an adaptation and, as long as the changes work, fidelity to the source material is simply not that important, so it largely doesn't matter that the film changes many, many things from the novel and I'm certainly not going to penalize the film simply because it isn't the book. Sure, the novel was scarier and the film never had a chance of living up to the particular language of the novel but there really is no point in harping on about changes to the plot, not even when the ending is a total departure from Susan Hill's original.

What is utterly puzzling though, is that they changed the main character so drastically from the book, even as they cast Daniel Radcliffe in the role. Radcliffe isn't at the point in his career when he can pull off a bitter, down-trodden and ultimately broken man who has never recovered from the tragic death of his young wife who died giving birth to their only son and whose career is in such a shambles that he has to take an unwanted case just to keep his job. As a young, recently engaged and aspiring lawyer who leaps at the chance to prove his worth and whose innocence and naivety are only tested when he comes into contact with the supernatural aspects of the case, though? The role almost seems written for him. Why on earth then did they jettison this established characterization for a less interesting take that is not only a bad fit for the actor cast in the role, but is one that essentially misses the point of the novel entirely?              

Miscasting aside, the other major flaw with the film is also the result of a rather perplexing creative choice. The film already has such a wonderfully dank and creepy atmosphere that one has to wonder why the film still sees the need to go for the most banal and obvious jump-scares imaginable. The score, in particular, telegraphs from miles away exactly when a scare is coming up and utterly ruins those same scares by over-egging the dramatic exclamation points in the music. Simply: seeing a ghostly apparition appear out of nowhere is scary; seeing a ghostly apparition appear just as the score all but jumps down your throat is decidedly less so.

It's a real pity that these easily avoidable problems are so prevalent in The Woman In Black. Had they not been, we could be looking at a modern day classic ghost story instead of what it ultimately is: a creepy, likable and admirable little ghost story that can never overcome the frustration that with but a few small tweaks, it could have been something truly special.


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