Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Things That Go Clunk in the Night

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Things That Go Clunk in the Night

Article excerpt

Will Brooker is disappointed by an old-fashioned ghost tale that lacks the spirit of its superior source.

The Woman in Black

Directed by James Watkins

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer and Liz White

Released in the UK on 10 February

Crythin Gifford, a small market town at an unspecified location in the North East of England in an unspecified decade of the 20th century, is a remote place, sealed off by thick fog and lacking modern conveniences. Its largest house, at Eel Marsh, has no electricity and relies on candles. Even its richest landowner has no telephone. All messages, as young solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is firmly told when he visits to resolve the matter of a local woman's estate, must be sent by telegraph.

And telegraphed they are. The film signals its shocks and scares in the most traditional ways, drawing on an old-fashioned horror vocabulary. As Kipps approaches the house at Eel Marsh, we see it from his point of view, with a shaky, handheld camera conveying his hesitation. He is gazed at by children with the eerie faces of porcelain dolls, and in turn by dolls with the eerie porcelain faces of children. The first mention of the woman's dead son is punctuated by high-pitched strings. Every exploration of the old house is undertaken in near silence, against a whispering soundtrack of rapid breaths, so it can be broken by a sudden close-up or scream. Essentially, despite the baroque surround of its family secrets and a few twists, the story comes down to a straightforward dare: spend a night alone in the haunted house.

The narrative requirement that Kipps must stay alone, of course, means that he is the only character on screen for long periods at a time. This is a substantial responsibility for young shoulders, and though Radcliffe has filled out into a solid 22-year-old who grows a few days' stubble during the course of the film, he never quite convinces. In his three- piece suit, clasping a pocket watch, he looks like a boy dressed up for the school play rather than a widower with a young son. After 10 years of facing off against Voldemort and the Death Eaters, he has a well-practised haunted, troubled expression, but comes across as a pink-eyed, pale White Rabbit in the sinister Wonderland of Eel House, with its grotesque wind-up toys, spooky portraits and blood-scrawled messages. …

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