Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Woman In Black

When A Lawyer (And A Film) Works Much Too Hard

Daniel Radcliffe as widower London lawyer Arthur Kipps in "The Woman In Black", directed by James Watkins. 
CBS Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, February 2
, 2012

"I work through the night," says Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) about a two-thirds of the way through the horror-thriller "The Woman In Black", directed by James Watkins and based on the book by Susan Hill, with script adaptation by Jane Goldman.  This film works beyond the nightshift and double time to make you afraid.  "Woman", which opens tonight at midnight across the U.S. and Canada, is about widower Arthur, a 19th century trusts and estates lawyer sent north of his London home into the countryside to clean up paper work at a late eccentric woman's grand, empty abode.

Arthur has a couple of days to tighten loose ends of the deceased lady's estate and head back to London.  Arthur's son Joseph, before a trip with his nanny, notes his dad's dour expressions.  "You always look like that," Joseph says wryly.  Arthur wades through the sourness of a remote village full of cold, cautious and disdainful faces.  Arthur isn't welcome.  Neither Mr. Watkins nor Ms. Goldman ever really tells us why until it's too late, and in the meantime we're left with only the scowls of adult townsfolk and children who are rapidly perishing due to the wrath of a woman in black haunting everyone in sight.  It isn't worth spoiling the ending or midpoint revelations but definite clues early on and later inform how this stale exercise in horror cliché will end. 

Numerous films in the supernatural thriller-horror genre have accomplished what Mr. Watkins tries but fails to do: balancing good scares with a tight, efficient and identifiable plot.  "The Woman In Black" is top-heavy with scares that dry up -- scares employed for the sake of scaring.  Much of Mr. Watkins' film and its events lack clarity or definition so that we, like Arthur, are swimming in murky and mucky waters.

Poor Arthur.  In contrast to some movie lawyers (Matthew McConaughey in last year's "The Lincoln Lawyer") he doesn't let down his hair.  Buttoned down, trapped and expressionless, Mr. Radcliffe never has to move a muscle or create an emotion for Arthur for the audience or the characters around Arthur to latch on to.  As a result we are alienated by the actor's nothingness while "Woman" works feverishly in its sole role as a cathedral of scares to obscure the reality that there's no real plot to hitch its wagon to.  Mr. Radcliffe is a staid, inanimate object for any scares and drummed-up Hitchcock atmosphere to dance and frolic around.  Yes, his Arthur has lost his wife and is always a glum fellow but even so, little emotion is conveyed either in the story or Mr. Radcliffe's acting, except for a couple of predictable flourishes.

"When we die, we go up there," Daily (Ciarán Hinds) notes sincerely.  Daily and his wife ("Albert Nobbs" Oscar nominee Janet McTeer) have experienced loss of their own.  Mr. Hinds ("The Eclipse", "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") is this film's lone gem, his subtle physical comedy and timing in many areas, including where raising a glass to imbibe is concerned, is priceless, as are the many looks he shoots Arthur and often no one in particular.  These moments of comic relief allow us to laugh with Daily but the loud, overdone bludgeon of frights makes us laugh at the film more, which I did for most of its running time.

"The Woman In Black", which had the same-titled 1989 U.K. television movie as its predecessor, is a deadening experience aside from two genuine scares early, and never evolves beyond one-trick-pony status.  The film builds atmosphere fairly well in some respects but each of the notes of its would-be horror are telegraphed faster than the telegrams Arthur wishes to send to London when things in remote-ville get dicey.

The film, produced in part by the Hammer Horror films company, Britain's classic horror outfit, needed more imagination and background than Ms. Goldman and Mr. Watkins provide.  Mr. Radcliffe, with all the bravado of a Hogwarts graduate, intrepidly canvasses the vacant mansion shrouded in darkness while silhouetted figures and apparitions keep him company.  Nothing at all is left to the imagination, and bedtime comes early for "The Woman In Black", which grows very tiresome very quickly.  Roald Dahl's "Tales Of The Unexpected" this was not.  (Herbert Wise, who directed the 1989 "Woman", also directed at least one episode of "Tales", the opening and closing credits of which are creepier than anything in this film.)  Watch a couple of episodes or an excerpt of the British 1970s TV series "Armchair Thriller" instead of Mr. Watkins' hollow scare machine.  You'd be better scared, and better off.

With: Sophie Stuckey, Misha Handley, Jessica Raine, Tim McMullen, Cathy Sara, Liz White, Roger Allam, Alisa Khazanova, Ashley Foster.

"The Woman In Black" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material and violence/disturbing images.  The film's running time is one hour and 35 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2012.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW