The Woman in Black Review
It proves troublesome to analyse the second visual imagining of Susan Hill's novel, The Woman in Black (the first version was a film made for UK television in 1989) without making any reference to Daniel Radcliffe's role and performance. Whilst this may seem a tiresomely predictable and perhaps cheap entry point into a discussion surrounding the British chiller, the approach is vindicated by the fact that Radcliffe's contribution here is relevant to the final output.
On many levels, you have to feel for Daniel. Enormously successful in that series of British blockbusters, the young actor faced the gargantuan task of shedding his Potter skin, setting fire to the stereotypes woven into its very fabric, and growing as an actor into a prospect capable of morphing into whatever characterisation would be required of him. Making a character your own in a series of shows or films is, of course, a potentially lucrative policy; just ask Leonard Nimoy, who is likely to be so infuriated at your question that the most you'll get for your troubles is a Vulcan nerve pinch. Yet Nimoy eventually realised that there would have to be life after Spock, and just as he discovered that breaking the mould of the stereotype would be a hugely challenging task (and to what degree he has managed to do that is very much open to question), young Mr Radcliffe is at a stage in his career where he is about to discover the very same thing.
Objectively, it's certainly clear to see why Radcliffe would choose The Woman in Black as his career segue into a new realm of acting; this effective chiller offers him the opportunity to work with a fine and fresh director (James Watkins, who directed the thrilling and violent Eden Lake) in a lead role. And further to that, he would have the opportunity to play the part of a father, presenting a bold statement of how this talented young actor would expedite his maturity into adulthood, a clear statement of intent by an actor desperate to showcase his adult credentials after a career of childhood acting.
With this in mind, it proves intriguing that Potter - sorry, I mean Radcliffe - is cast into the role of a young lawyer and father, who is on the verge of losing his job at a firm of lawyers. It seems that the young man has not proven himself, and is told that he will be sacked if he fails on his next job to examine the documents of a recently deceased lady at a remote village. His quiet struggle to be taken seriously at both his workplace, and in the village he travels to, mirrors his real life struggle as an actor to elevate himself to the next echelon in the acting world, and as he is pushed around with ease by the gruff villagers, it's difficult not to compare this to his struggle for adult acting credibility off screen.
Whilst Radcliffe is certainly not a poor actor and is certainly capable of life after Potter, the truth is that he is miscast in this role. Shortly after the opening credits, for instance, Watkins depicts the character interacting with his son, yet Radcliffe just isn't credible as the boy's father, and the dynamics feel unnatural - despite the surprising performance of the child and Radcliffe's real life association with the little boy (Radcliffe is his Godfather). It's clear that he has put a great deal of effort into making the role his, yet we're never fully convinced, and this disconnect between the actor and his casting presents a genuine risk to the film during its early phases.
Fortunately, Watkins demonstrates his deft hand as director and leaves us wondering why his directorial output hasn't been higher than the solitary two films to his name so far. And as he guides Radcliffe away from the unconvincing scenes in the early phases towards the highly compressed tension that forms the central bulk of the film, the whole piece is rescued from the potential lack of credibility which could have rendered it - and its lead actor - impotent.
For Watkins' Edwardian spinechiller, once in full swing, is a truly taut and suspenseful affair which proves - much to our psychologically masochistic delight - that an almost total absence of blood, guts, violence, and profanity can still, in 2012, burrow deep beneath our skin and rattle us mercilessly. During this part of the film, Radcliffe barely utters a word, yet trapped in physical and mental isolation within a rundown, shadowy, austere house where he is gradually mentally tortured by a scarcely seen apparition, we barely recall his character misfit from before. In this capacity, he does well and deserves credit, yet The Woman in Black proves so chillingly effective during this section because of Watkins' sharp direction, Tom Maurice-Jones' superbly haunting cinematography, and the absolutely stunning work of those responsible for the sets, which are unerringly authentic and visually absorbing. Watkins understands how to pull these items together to quite devastating effect; the shots of the staircases illuminated by candlelight, for example, are wonderfully atmospheric and unnerving, and the scenes within the vast house are captured with precision. As the story develops, the camera moves gradually, smoothly, and in such a grimly inexorable manner that we feel compelled to watch, and trapped within the nightmare that the young lawyer finds himself enveloped within.
Watkins' film features a misplaced Radcliffe who scrapes through thanks to his admirable efforts, and also because of the considerable ability demonstrated by the filmmaking talent involved in this production. There will be those who critique the film for bringing little new to the filmmaking table, and some may consider that the film relies too heavily on horror clichés and tried and tested formulaic shocks. The opening and closing of the film may well also be too sentimental for some, and some may consider the wonderful slow-burn of the film too slow for modern expectations. Yet overall, it seems rather fitting that it should be Hammer who have a hand in one of the most accomplished and successful British horror films of the last twenty years, and do so without needing to crank up the blood, the body count, or the bad language.
This DVD release of Hammer's The Woman in Black is released by Momentum Pictures, and is encoded for region 2, to be viewed by European audiences. The film is presented in the native aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and the transfer is very strong indeed, with the end result - which is extremely consistent and stable throughout - looking only a smidgen away from a Blu-ray quality presentation. The definition and accuracy is superb throughout, and even with the blue-grey filtering of Watkins' often gloomy picture, the colours still present in solid enough fashion. The image quality is consistently put to the test with the interior shots of the intimidating house, which benefits from a proliferation of colourful and detailed artwork, gruesome taxidermy, and ornate wallpaper, yet the transfer never lets us down, with each scene proving detailed, accurate, and convincing. Much of the film is shot in darkness, and there are some scenes where we cannot be fully sure of what we are seeing, yet this is by design, and with solid blacks and clear definition between the shadows and neighbouring objects, I have no complaints here, and the darkness does its job of obscuring what we shouldn't see and revealing what we should.
I feel that I should say a few words about the certificate this film has been granted. The film has been granted two different certificates; a '12A', and a '15' certificate. The distributor agreed to make six seconds of cuts to secure a 12A rating at the time of cinematic release (presumably to match the '13' rating in the U.S.), and the BBFC also insisted on the reduction of some sounds during moments of high tension, and also a darkening of some scenes where particularly unsettling (non-gore) images were shown. Whilst the DVD release is being advertised with a '12' certificate, the cuts in question (which I won't mention for spoiler reasons, but you can find full details on the BBFC web site) were NOT apparent on the review copy I watched; so far as I could tell, it was an unexpurgated version.
Whilst I may be 'constructively' critical of the BBFC's fine work on many occasions, I have to admit by being fairly surprised by their approach in this instance. The Woman in Black isn't corrupting, amoral, or even especially violent, but it is pretty rattling, and as such I would have expected a '15' certificate (only) for the film and then no requirement for any cuts.
English subtitles are available, which appear just below the main image in the lower black bar, and prove acceptable enough. You also have the option of watching with Audio Description for the Visually Impaired.
The menu system is a little slow, but benefits from an impressive design in keeping with the film.
There are a few trailers, including the much anticipated (by yours truly, at least) Red Lights, and The King's Speech.
The audio delivery here is similarly strong, with Marco Beltrami's beautifully haunting, orchestral score given a superb range to breathe within. The strings are reproduced in clear and vibrant fashion for a truly absorbing listen, and the lower bass notes are also suitably substantial whilst remaining sufficiently tight. The 5.1 surround is subtle yet makes for a genuinely absorbing experience, and the carefully captured peripheral noises are responsible for helping to ratchet up the tension, as noises appear in convincing fashion across the sound stage.
The set of extras opens with a warmly welcomed Commentary with Director James Watkins and Screenwriter Jane Goldman, who provide a very appealing and relaxing commentary to the film as it unfolds. The two are respectful commentators, delivering their comments in measured yet natural conversation, and Watkins lends us some useful insights into the making of the film, pointing out continuity issues (such as the chap early in the film who has varying levels of wet coats between shots!) and discussing some of the challenges surrounding the making of the film. Watkins also points out some moments where the Woman... is visible but you may have missed her, so it's worth picking out these moments when listening to the commentary. Goldman is similarly engaging, although her verbal output is slightly lower than that of Watkins.
To accompany the commentary, there's a slew of short (ranging from between three minutes to approximately 10) extras with all of the key people involved in the film, including director James Watkins, scriptwriter Jane Goldman (and her amazing red locks), Daniel Radcliffe, and even the author of the original novel, Susan Hill. These are well produced and interesting enough extras, despite their relatively swift running time and perfunctory nature, though I must mention that some of the slots are accompanied with a musical score, and this does dominate the audio slightly, making the comments of those being interviewed rather difficult to hear. The extras included are Inside the Perfect Thriller: Making the Woman in Black, No Fear: Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, Interviews with James Watkins and Jane Goldman, and an Interview with Daniel Radcliffe.
The Woman in Black Red Carpet Special, presented by Edith Bowman, is a little more substantial at 22 minutes, and features footage of the premiere, with Edith interviewing those involved in the making of the film, as well as other guests, such as, perhaps inevitably, Jonathan Ross, the always entertaining Louis Theroux, and, unfortunately, Mark Wright, who is from that Essex TV show thingy. The premiere footage and interviews are interspersed with 'behind the scenes' footage and clips from the film itself. The piece closes with a fairly substantial (in the context of this extra) interview with Radcliffe himself.
A section entitled Ghost Story Competition features Daniel reading a two and a half minute ghost story segment, which I can only guess was the winner of some sort of ghost story competition surrounding the film.
A Theatrical Trailer and a couple of Teaser Trailers showcase the film whilst being uncharacteristically respectful in terms of restraint, and we wrap up this very reasonable set of extras with a Gallery section, featuring sets of images categorised by 'behind the scenes', 'film stills', 'production design', and 'storyboards'. The galleries automatically run through the image sets, and run for about a minute a piece.
Daniel Radcliffe works exceptionally hard to make his role a success, and whilst he puts in a commendable shift, it's difficult to escape the notion that he simply isn't the right fit for this role. That said, The Woman in Black is one of the most expertly crafted and downright frightening British horror entries of the last few years, and with an excellent transfer and decent collection of extras, this release of James Watkins' film comes highly recommended.