Daniel Radcliffe may have escaped his wizard robes, but he is unable to escape the preternatural in his return to the big screen after the conclusion of the hugely popular Harry Potter series. The Woman in Black, pits the partially matured Radcliffe, playing young lawyer Arthur Kipps, against a maleficent spirit bent upon making an entire village childless.
All good ghost stories are also good mysteries. The very nature of a ghost, a tormented soul who wanders the Earth because of the circumstances of its death and the tragic life that lead to its demise, necessitates the mystery. If the living can some how solve the puzzle and put everything back to rights, then the ghost may find peace.
The living person investigating the circumstances involving this malevolent spirit is almost assuredly a true skeptic or an unwitting subject who stumbles across the ghost accidentally. Sleepy Hollow and Poltergeist follow this formula, and even a film like The Others changes it only slightly, but with exciting results.
The key to the success of these eerie tales of unresolved torment is in the mystery and the psychological and emotional development of the investigator. Without a compelling mystery, we have nothing to anticipate, nothing to figure out. Without a compelling central character, we have no one to root for, no one to encourage as the mystery unfolds.
The Woman in Black comes up short in both regards. The mystery of how this malevolent woman came to her end and the troubled life that preceded it is answered far too quickly. We not only know how she died, but why and how her torment might be resolved much too early in the story.
By solving the mystery with significant time to spare, The Woman in Black becomes a mixture of character study, and horror action film, full of pop-up scares and the unending wails of an altogether unreasonable ghost.
The thrill ride horror portion may entertain some. If a series of startles without substance seems like an exciting distraction for a couple of hours, then The Woman in Black will be a fun if forgettable film. I found the sound design, specifically the screaming, wearying, and the fighting of the ethereal with such substantive weapons, as an axe, was thoroughly implausible.
What could have been an interesting, if not adept, character drama deflates under Radcliffe’s insubstantial performance. He simply does not command our attention as the central character, and had the camera not been pointing square at him for the whole of the film, we may have forgotten he was there entirely.
A capable and underused supporting cast, which includes Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds, surrounds the young Radcliffe. Though each gives a performance rife with the gravitas we have come to expect from them, neither is able to save The Woman in Black.
If you’re looking for a few cheap thrills, then it may be worth a couple of hours. If you’re looking for something more, or desperate for something to hold on to since Harry Potter’s conclusion, The Woman in Black is sure to disappoint.