The problem with most ghost movies is that they fall apart in the clutch.
Oh, there are a few, like Robert Wise’s The Haunting, that set the hook early and never let you shake it off.
But most movies in the genre end up delivering a few goosebumps and then run aground on the rocks of their own illogical premises.
The Woman in Black is a fairly traditional Victorian haunter about a wandering spirit – that of a wronged woman – making life miserable for the living.
Daniel Radcliffe (that’s right, Harry Potter) stars as a widowed lawyer circa 1900, when noisy automobiles are beginning to show up even in remote English towns. Our hero, Arthur Kipps, has journeyed to a small coastal burg to settle the estate of a wealthy old woman whose large and largely rundown home sits on an island cut off from the mainland with each high tide.
Arthur is a sad, morose fellow perpetually in mourning for the wife who died in childbirth and left him with a young son back in London. He has his hands full with the locals, who refuse to rent him a room at the local inn, decline to take him out to the island estate, and even try to block the roads to deny him access.
The local gentry (Ciarán Hinds), a rationalist with a mad wife (Janet McTeer) and contempt for the peasants’ superstitions, befriends the young stranger and facilitates his entry to the moldering mansion.
Writer/director James Watkins obviously had a lot of budget to play around with here, and the old house is a suitably spooky bit of production design. Spookier still are Arthur’s glimpses of a woman. Sometimes she’s spotted in the overgrown yard before the house. Sometimes she’s glimpsed briefly in a reflection.
Rocking chairs rock on their own. Candles are blown out where there is no breeze. Rusty windup toys suddenly come to life. A patch of darkness advances down a hall toward our protagonist.
Just as disturbing are a series of deaths among children in the village. Arthur’s presence seems to have stirred up some long-dormant evil.
Watkins borrows from some very good sources here — The Innocents and the aforementioned The Haunting, for starters. And The Woman in Black reeks of musty, dank atmosphere.
Plus, the director does something daring by presenting a central half hour of the film with virtually no dialogue. It all takes place as Arthur, alone on the island, explores his surroundings and encounters all manner of unearthly phenomenon. It’s a tasty example of visual storytelling.
Radcliffe is acceptable in the role without in any way being exceptional. Which is rather unfortunate, because for huge chunks of the film he’s giving a solo performance. It needs to be exceptional.
Bottom line: Not a must-see, but good creepy fun.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.