YOU may expect Daniel Radcliffe to struggle convincing us he’s good for playing anyone besides Harry Potter, but the young fella pretty much gets it right as lawyer Arthur Kipps in James Watkins’s adaptation of the successful Susan Hill novel The Woman in Black.
Sent to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of one Mrs Drablow, latterly the owner of Eel Marsh House, Kipps already knows his task will be difficult because of the torrential downpour on the train ride out from London. Oh, and during the trip he dreams of his wife’s death while giving birth to their only son. Also, he has a sort of sallow, mournful face on him the whole time, so we know he must be a troubled soul.
On arrival in the village Kipps is almost turned away from the inn, prevailing on his hosts only via some passive-aggressive arm-twisting to secure an ordinarily disused attic room. Then the local solicitor who has been handling the deceased estate — wholly unsatisfactorily, according to Kipps’s London law firm — does all he can to send poor Arthur packing straight back to the city. That does it — he knows he’ll have to get to the bottom of this conundrum.
Enveloping mists, creaking doors, mystery whistles, crows flapping about uttering endlessly spooky sounds — there’s a lot that has to with birds of doom in this thing — and the early death of an innocent child tell you there’ll be plenty of horror. It’s all a little bit camp, but who says everything has to be serious realism? And this is Harry Potter we’re talking about. (Oh, and blow me if there isn’t a wildly gyrating rocking chair with no one in it, fairly early on.)
Arthur Conan Doyle gets an early namecheck and that was enough to pique my interest. The whole story hinges on the late 19th and early 20th-century obsession with spiritualism, seances and the occult that was at least in part a product of that age’s technological advances. When Kipps asks the local solicitor whether he has a phone, the answer that no one in the village has one is a reminder that superstition and communication come from the same dark place.
Of course, you can’t have disturbed spirits and a crumbling old stately home at the end of a narrow tidal causeway without a ghost, and so it proves. Kipps, already something of a nervous wreck over his failure to make much of himself at work, mounting debts and the long absences his job requires from young son Joseph, reaches Eel Marsh House to go through the widow’s papers, only to be confronted by a secret much darker than the simple malevolent shade we initially have been set up to be on guard for.
It’s all shot very dimly, lit by candles and with the usual assortment of evilly grinning toy dolls, pet dogs that know more than they’re letting on and sudden pools of blood in unexpected places. I’d be surprised if Kipps — or Radcliffe, for that matter — slept another wink once this job was done. The moral? Just make sure you always pay back your debts to the dead.
(MA15+) Paramount (83min, $37.95)
(M) 20th Century Fox (124min, $39.95)
(M) Sony (95min, $14.95)