With Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley. Written by Jane Goldman. Directed by James Watkins. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images. 95 minutes.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK is an old-fashioned ghost story designed to make you jump repeatedly and never be quite sure where it’s going. In that, it succeeds admirably. However, when you get to the final payoff you be left wondering if it had been worth the effort. If an hour-and-a-half of chills and suspense for the sake of chills and suspense is sufficient, than it will have been.
Daniel Radcliffe, with the “Harry Potter” series now firmly behind him, tackles the role of Arthur Pipps, a young attorney who is struggling to get by since the death of his wife during childbirth. In a telling early scene, his young son (Misha Handley) draws a picture of the family with mommy in Heaven and daddy with a sad face. His firm gives Pipps one last chance to get his life straight by sending him to a remote English village to go through the papers of a recently deceased client.
He’s been told that the local solicitor has been less than helpful, and upon his arrival there he discovers that the same can be said of the whole town. Everyone makes it very clear they don’t want him there, they don’t want him poking around in the house of the late Mrs. Drablow, and they want him on the train back to London as soon as possible. The one exception is the town squire, Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds), who is happy to find another educated man with whom to talk.
Without giving anything away, the town is under a curse and all its children are at risk. Mr. Daily’s son died at an early age and his wife (Janet McTeer) believes the boy still talks to her and draws her pictures. There’s something about Pipps and his investigation that stirs things up again. The story is about him unraveling the mystery and what happens then.
Where the movie works is in providing some old fashioned creepiness combined with the threat to the town’s children. That’s good for several awful frights, as well as the usual “boo!” effect when people suddenly pop up into the screen when they’re not expected, whether for real or as an apparition. We see Pipps following a shadow, then seeing (or not seeing) a mysterious image, which is good for several jolts to the audience. Radcliffe, who carries most of the acting weight of the film on his shoulders, is effective as the beaten-down young man who finds things spinning out of his control.
The payoff, though, ought to give one pause. On the one hand, it is consistent with what has come before, but on the other hand it leaves the viewer with a queasy feeling. The result is a solid if not stellar effort which shows that a horror story doesn’t need buckets of gore to be creepy and it can leave you with nightmares just the same.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.