This post is the unedited version of the review published in our film review column “Animadversion” for Images On Sunday (Dawn Newspaper) on 18th March 2012. The link and scans of the printed version are at the end of the post.
Drowning in Black, the Mystery of Dead Children.
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
In his first film post the billion dollar Harry Potter franchise, Daniel Radcliffe still sees ghosts over his shoulders. Unlike Harry, whose affiliation with the lingering dead (practically and metaphorically) were always of a greater number, here in The Woman in Black, he only has two to fend off. One is the gray-scaled, ever-present specter of a veiled woman. The other is a semi-subconscious inkling that this is a continuing Potter film.
For the returning Hammer studios (makers of vintage Dracula), this may well be a disguised blessing. Distributed stateside by CBS Films, The Woman in Black is the studios most commercially successful fare: it has grossed $90 million worldwide on a budget of $13 million.
The fanfare owes one-half to Mr. Radcliffe, and another to the material’s legacy (the film is an adaptation of the 1982 novel, also Britain’s second longest-running play – the first being Agatha Christies The Mousetrap, now in its 60th year).
Another, more-or-less, substantial part of the film’s box-office popularity is the predictability unanimously associated with boo-in-the-dark horror films. This predictability is a facet, as well as an asset, brazenly hugged by director James Watkins (Eden Lake) and screenwriter Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick Ass).
You know the drill: shadowy apparitions skulk behind Mr. Radcliffe’s back; menacing (and ugly) hand-carved toys abruptly start playing; people in photographs have their eyes scratched off; a vacant rocking chair, um, rocks. If there’s a clue in here, both I (as the audience) and Mr. Radcliffe’s character – Arthur – are damned if we knew what.
The opening scene is a clincher: three young girls are playing tea-party with their toys, when something, invisible to the camera, draws their attention. They leave their play-things, walk quietly to the window, almost hand-in-hand, and jump off.
Years later, Arthur, a mopey young widowed solicitor, is instructed by his owner to close a case. We know Arthur is a wreck with almost suicidal tendencies. At his first on-screen appearance he’s just about ready to cut his wind-pipe off with a shaving blade. He also sees “dead people” – in this case, his wife who died during childbirth. Distinct from the “woman in black”, who he will see much of later in the film, his wife’s otherworldly reflection blooms in vivid shades of white.
Soon he leaves behind his four-year old (Misha Handley, Mr. Radcliffe’s real god-son) and heads out to a remote town. Although a first-time visitor, Arthur meets unprovoked glares from the towns-folk when he mentions his nature of business: the closing of Eel Marsh House – an off-shore, dust sealed mansion that’s routinely run over by tide.
People on this town have a firm understanding: if Arthur does not leave soon, more of their children will die. The connection, relatively unexplained by the screenplay, is valid. Children do die and the intensity of evil-eyes that Arthur gets increases. Exponentially.
Arthur, now adamant about uncovering the clues, finds helpful refuge with Ciaran Hinds. Hinds is a wealthy landowner with a kooky-wife (an enjoyable Janet McTeer), who still grieves their long-dead son.
The film’s mystery suffocates in its make-shift, very in-your-face, atmosphere. Even though most of it, at least technically, is spot-on. The minimalist cinematography (Tim Maurice-Jones), music (Marco Beltrami), and the mutely colored production design and costumes (Kave Quinn, Keith Madden) carry the Edwardian-era feel to the tee.
And of course there’s Mr. Radcliffe, who owns about every second of every frame – even when his performance is often directed to looking off-screen with a big-eyed, worried/constipated, look (something he mastered quite well as Harry).
The Woman in Black, in its ardent best, works Mr. Radcliffe to a corner. I sincerely hope, for his continued sake in the motion picture business, he accepts a role more contemporary and disparate to his Potter-like image and genre. A supernatural–thriller (though not much of both), is not the way to go right now – but that’s strictly my own perception.
Call it a subconscious fixture if you may. Half the time I expected someone in the film to say, out-loud in craggy a British-accent: “’Aey, I know you…you’re ‘Arry Potter”.
The Woman in Black is currently playing in cinema screens across Pakistan. Rated PG-13, there’s only faux suspense and put-on dramatics here. Move along folks.
The published version can be read at Dawn.com at: http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/18/animadversion-black-mystery.html
And in the paper, it looks like this: