A fitting recent companion piece to The Woman in Black is perhaps Nick Murphy’s The Awakening. Both films were made on reasonably tight budgets (although The Woman in Black reportedly cost significantly more than The Awakening’s humble £3m), both feature partially-obscured faces peering out of windows, and both feature well-known actors wandering alone through haunted houses for much of their run times. They are also both adeptly handled, satisfying chillers which capitulate frustratingly in their final act.
This adaptation of the well-liked book and stage play of the same name was penned by Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class) and directed by James Watkins. It stars Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Potter role, although drawing attention to that is perhaps to do the actor a disservice. People will see this performance as an attempt to diversify, but in reality his career has been directed up to now by the size and weight of the Harry Potter franchise, not so much out of personal choice. This is simply an actor who is well-known for a particular role no longer playing that role.
And he’s perfectly fine as Arthur Kipps, although I did have a fundamental issue with his casting. He simply looks too young for the role. When a character asks him how old his son is, and he replies “four”, I immediately thought “Hang on a minute. Really?” I was expecting a character in the film to give some context to his age, but that never happened. Not having read the book or seen the play, I may be missing something here, and to be fair it isn’t exactly a deal-breaker as regards the effectiveness of the film, but it did sit a little uneasily as I watched.
The plot sees Arthur travelling north from London to a remote village which has not yet embraced the technology of the age. Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a local landowner who befriends Arthur, drives the only car in the village. Arthur has been tasked with sorting out an old estate which no longer has any occupants, although we quickly learn that the prospect of his messing around in the affairs of the past has the locals on edge. Arthur is compelled to finish his task because he has been threatened with redundancy, which explains why he is determined to carry on with his investigation, even when things begin to go bump in the night.
The old estate (in classic horror tradition) is an isolated, lonely place; a yawning old building filled with creepy decorations and separated from the mainland by a causeway. The sight of water drowning the road and washing away Arthur’s escape route provides an effective visual reminder that he is cut off from any source of help.
The first two acts are based around a central set piece in which Arthur is trapped in the house for a night, and here Watkins serves up an effective slice of haunted house filmmaking. Like Rebecca Hall in The Awakening, and countless protagonists in the films which serve as inspiration for this, Radcliffe stalks the house’s seemingly endless rooms, chasing shadows and cocking his ear to mysterious, faraway sounds. It’s formulaic in the extreme, but effective lighting and sound, as well as strong set design (there are plenty of visual cues and reminders lurking in the frame) make it a suitably tense and creepy mid-section. Radcliffe is mostly silent through long stretches of the film, and though the script doesn’t give him as much to do as Rebecca Hall in The Awakening, he is effective enough in what is required of him.
The film’s ending (and indeed Arthur’s history) may rankle those who know the source material, as changes have been made. My issues with the ending, however, are purely based on the fact that it scuppers the tension and intrigue of the build-up, misses the chance to give us an emotional pay-off, and generally feels rushed.
In the end, the film doesn’t do much more than tell an effective haunted house story. Decent supporting performances help lift the sections which unfold away from the old estate, but the film doesn’t separate itself enough from the tropes of the genre to truly stand out. There are plenty of effectiv e jump scares, and it’s nicely shot, but beneath the surface there isn’t a great deal going on. Which is a shame, because for a fair while it gives a very good account of itself.