Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from the preternatural success of the Harry Potter films, stays close to his cinematic roots with THE WOMAN IN BLACK. A smidgen too young for the role of widowered father of a four-year-old, at least for 21st-century sensibilities, he and the film use the tender vulnerability of both his years and his delicate, almost girlish features to excellent advantage. They foster, almost demand, not just the audiences sympathies, but also a protective, almost mothering, instinct that works as a nice juxtaposition to the savage nature of the film when it comes to what the eponymous spirit has in store for children.
As for the film itself, it understands that one of the most effective ways to instill horror in an audience is to first instill dread. A foreboding sense of the unknown, in this case with the audience in on the unknown, of only by a tiny degree, and the brave protagonist entirely innocent of the knowledge that there is any reason to dread or forebode. The protagonist is Arthur Kips (Radcliffe), a youthful Edwardian widower with his own death wish and a desire to believe in the afterlife rather than an actual belief in same. When we first meet him, he is regarding his boyishly handsome but somber face in a mirror as he places his straight-edge razor, the blade shining a little too brightly, to his throat in a position not intended for a shave. Arthurs intentions are clear as he is interrupted by the sound of his son, Joseph, a sunny lad of four untouched by the tragedy of his mothers death in childbirth that has left a permanent frown on Arthurs face. They are about to be parted as Arthur ventures north from London to a tiny village, and a decaying mansion with the evocative name of Eel Marsh Manor, that represent his last hope of keeping his job at a law firm.
Once there, the locals are rude in a brusque rustic way, but its rudeness with a tinge of fear. Perhaps the fear is from the way the local children have a habit of killing themselves. The first scene, after all, shows three adorable girls sweetly playing tea party before robotically stepping out of a window to their respective deaths as their off-screen mother wails in anguish. The room from which they leap is the room in which Arthur finds himself lodging at the local inn before being booted out after another little angel does herself in. That the townsfolk blame the sweetly morose Arthur is obvious from the way they rush their children indoors when he passes. Why they blame him isnt, though its no leap to suspect that his visits to Eel Marsh Manor may figure prominently into it.
Arthurs only ally is the local squire, Mr. Daily (Ciarin Hinds), with a tragedy of his own and an eccentric wife (Janet McTeer) who is the result of that tragedy. Daily dismisses the locals fears as superstition, but convinces Arthur to take one of Dailys dogs with him for company when the young man proposes to spend the night in the Manor in order to finish up the paperwork assigned to him.
Simple story, standard elements, to be sure, but handled by director James Watkins with a stunning insight into why things that go bump in the night ranks as one of the most primal of primal fears. This is a film of mood and atmosphere rather than special effects, and the terror it evokes is far more insidious. The innocent outsider entering a house of secrets and not seeing the face over his shoulder that shouldnt be there, and in an instant, isnt anymore. Echoing footsteps in shadowy halls, impossible sounds coming from empty rooms, absolute silence, and a sudden crescendo of music that may or may not reveal anything supernatural in the sinister house make the skin crawl, the adrenaline pump, and nerves fray themselves raw with anticipation. Knowing that something awful is behind a door is no defense against the shock of discovery. That the discoveries involve hints, brief sights of what may or may not be a shadow, as well as the sudden violent ripping away of the refined gentility of that era, add to a sense of unreality that grows in all but imperceptible increments. In this context, a sunrise is not so much a relief, as a prolongation of the increasingly dangerous situation in which Arthur finds himself.
Radcliffe is terrific. He as the gravitas of grief and of adulthood thrust upon him too soon, as well as the right melancholy of a man who has lost his one true love as a result of his love. When he walks the dark and dusty corridors of Eel Marsh Manor, candle in hand, science on his side, he has just enough insouciance to make staying in a place that has already unhinged him plausible, and just enough hyper alertness to show that his subconscious is battling his sense of reason after discovering why the dead are not resting there.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK evokes visceral reactions, from tragic romance, to the angry dead, to a dip in the dark and viscous mud of Eel Marsh itself, which is as creepy as anything to do with the spiritual world if only for the ook factor. This is an elegantly old-fashioned exercise in fine storytelling that is also deeply terrifying for reasons that may not dissipate when the lights go up.