Screaming and Eels

The Woman in Black: adapted by Jane Goldman from the 1983 novel by Susan Hill; directed by James Watkins; starring Daniel Radcliffe (Arthur Kipps) and Ciaran Hinds (Daily) (2012): By all rights, this should be a movie about a young, early-20th-century British solicitor who travels to a small English sea-side town only to discover the town deserted, the residents all having moved to the United States, or perhaps even the Moon.

Given what’s going on in the gloomy English east-coast town of Crythin Gifford, nobody would continue to live there. I don’t care how good the fishing is. So one has to take this improbability and run with it, as one sometimes must when the devil vomits into one’s tea-kettle.

Set just prior to World War One, The Woman in Black follows Daniel Radcliffe as that young solicitor, a widower whose wife died giving birth to their now-4-year-old son. Radcliffe isn’t done any services by the early part of the film, during which he plays chronic grief as if it were chronic constipation.

He gets better as he’s allowed to emote more, though he never seems to emote quite enough under the circumstances, which involve an isolated, supremely creepy mansion; children who keep committing “suicide” by jumping out windows, drinking lye, or lighting themselves on fire; a serial-child-killing ghost who enjoys screaming and sudden bursts of quick movement; a room full of creepy toys and an extremely disturbing rocking chair; and the tormented and occasionally screaming ghosts of dozens of dead children.

Both the movie and the novel it’s based on are homages to something more literary than filmic — the classic British ghost story as practiced by writers that include J. Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James. The mansion is the scariest character here, a marvel of set design, with the ghosts and the mise-en-scene coming a close second: a lot of the scares in the movie rely on something somewhat indistinct edging into the background before becoming more distinct and/or getting closer and closer…

Ciaran Hinds really has the only other role in this movie with any substantial lines, as a resident of the town who’s been touched by tragedy but persists in not believing in ghosts. Also, he has a motor car that comes in handy towards the end. But would anyone be surprised that a place named Eel Marsh House is a bad place? Anyone? Recommended.

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