A version of this article originally appeared on the now defunct online magazine Cultural Transmogrifier. This film review was published in 2012 with the theatrical release of The Woman in Black—hence, the dated Harry Potter reference near the end.
As Daniel Radcliffe’s first film since the Harry Potter series, The Woman in Black is particularly interesting to discuss. I certainly had hoped to see Radcliffe perform well in a compelling film. Unfortunately, The Woman in Black feels like a skeleton of a movie because the plot and characters lack substance. Interestingly, director James Watkins said, “I think it’s important that every character, that you see them from the inside-out, and you know who they are and what they feel.” While he’s certainly correct that it’s important for audiences to really know and understand a character and that character depth makes for great story-telling, The Woman in Black fails to provide such depth and leaves us with far too many unanswered questions.
First, “The Woman in Black” is an incredibly generic name and description for a villain and hardly menacing. To compound matters, we know little about The Woman in Black other than she’s a ghost haunting a secluded village in England. During her life, the state deemed her mentally unstable, she subsequently lost custody of her son (over whom she was possessive and obsessive), and her sister adopted him. While that’s all very intriguing, it’s all we have. We neither know the extent of The Woman in Black’s mental illness nor what she did that prompted the state to deem her an unfit mother. And this information would have been interesting to know, especially because providing such information would have made The Woman in Black—even though she’s a ghost—more human, and therefore, more real, and therefore, much more sinister.
Similarly, we don’t see the protagonist, Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), “from the inside-out” and so we don’t fully understand his motivations. The film suggests Kipps has been struggling with depression since the death of his wife four years prior, but the full traumatic impact of her death is only hinted at rather than explicated.
As a struggling lawyer and single father living in London, Kipps’s boss commissions him to go to a secluded village and settle a recently deceased woman’s affairs. We know that Kipps initially travels to this village because he needs money. But during the course of his visit, his job becomes a distant memory, and we begin wondering what Kipps is really doing there. Why does he feel compelled to keep returning to an obviously haunted house, and furthermore, why does he feel compelled to stay the night? What makes him feel the need to confront a malicious ghost and bring her spirit to peace? He could have easily returned to London, and he could have easily settled the deceased woman’s affairs in London.
As for Radcliffe’s acting, he delivers an acceptable performance and has definitely grown as an actor since his turn as Harry Potter. As Arthur Kipps, he displays emotion with subtle, natural facial expressions that render his sadness, terror, and desperation more believable. However, as a friend pointed out, he often has the same “faraway look” in moments of intense consternation. What are the implications of this? That Radcliffe—like many other actors—can deliver a believable performance in any given role but doesn’t seem markedly different from one character to the next. Sure, Kipps is much more reserved and depressed than Harry Potter, but Radcliffe’s delivery from Harry Potter to The Woman in Black doesn’t change significantly. He may have done a better job acting, but his method is the same, i.e. the faraway look. But I can forgive him for this, considering that he’s so young and that many actors fail to pull off drastic transformations from film to film like Gary Oldman does.
It is strange to see Radcliffe as the leading adult male of a film because many of us still think of him as teenage Harry Potter. And because we so strongly associate Radcliff with teenage Harry Potter, it’s even harder to believe him as a father. Radcliffe suspected that he might have difficulty pulling off this role and was smart enough to recruit his godson, Misha Handley, for the part of his son, Joseph Kipps. This made the relationship between the two of them feel authentic and something akin to a father-son relationship.
Along with Radcliffe’s performance, the film redeems itself by being legitimately creepy at times. This creepiness stems largely from the fact that the film moves slowly. We follow Radcliffe everywhere he goes in what feels like real-time, and, accordingly, he serves as a vehicle for the viewer. As he walks throughout the house, investigating strange, inexplicable sounds, we feel that we too walk through the house, hear disturbing noises, see rocking chairs move of their own accord and toys seemingly wind themselves. During these moments, the film manages to temporarily transport me into its world.
Overall, the film certainly has some entertainment value, but its skeletal nature makes it fall flat. It’s one of those films that you’ll be more likely to enjoy if you keep your expectations low.