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15 February 2012

Hell on Wheels in a Black Dress

I like a good scary movie but James Watkins's film The Woman in Black doesn't quite qualify. I'm not sure whether it's good but not scary enough or scary but not good enough. Either way, I thought it was fine but ultimately unsatisfying.

I saw The Woman in Black on stage in Dublin, more than half a lifetime ago. All I remember was being quite scared or, at least, being made jump a lot. For fun, I decided to keep a "scare" tally in Watkins's new film. There were nine big scare moments, which caused much jumping and shrieking among audience members (followed by much giggling and chatting, this being the No Etiquette Odeon cinema). Three of those nine got me too, although I was concentrating hard, as I find it mildly embarrassed to be caught shrieking in public. And nine big scares, plus a few mini-scares, is pretty respectable for a 95-minute movie.

As for the plot, well, we all know the basics: a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is dispatched to a remote house in the north to go and sort out the affairs of a reclusive old widow, who has recently died. Kipps's own wife died in childbirth and his young son and the nanny will come to join him in the middle of nowhere for the weekend, once Kipps's business is done. But on the train to Hogwarts Crythin Gifford, he meets Sam Daily (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), who tells him he won't find a local buyer for the widow's house. Because it's haunted by the eponymous woman in black, who has a terrible habit of leading many of the local children to tragic deaths from beyond the grave. Kipps doesn't have much choice, however, given that his boss has told him this is his final chance to keep his job, and before long, he's sticking his nose where it isn't wanted and being terrorized by 'er upstairs and by the locals, who blame him for certain turns of event.

And then... Actually, that's about all of the plot. I wasn't overly impressed by Jane Goldman's script and Radcliffe's Kipps remained largely a cipher and I didn't especially care whether he succumbed to the black-shrouded lady's advances. Hands's character was more interesting--more human and more sympathetic, for sure. The cinematography was great, with long, bleak pans of the village, the marshes and Eel Marsh House, and then slow zooms in on Radcliffe while he explores the house. This, along with Marco Beltrami's score, contributed a great deal to the tension and to most of the scares.

I don't think The Woman in Black is a bad film but I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed by the end result: either too much plot was sacrificed in favour of good, old-fashioned, scary fun, the old-fashioned scary fun wasn't quite scary enough or fun enough.

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