Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: "The Woman in Black"

There may not be any wands in The Woman in Black, James Watkins' take on the classic British ghost story, but there's plenty of supernatural elements to fill that void. So even though Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter days are finally behind him, and the actor has certainly grown quite a bit. Yet despite Radcliffe's maturation and earnest efforts, Watkins' film fails to generate much in the way of suspense or scares.

Opening with a quietly unsettling set of deaths, followed by hazy close-ups of a husband and wife exchanging their wedding rings, the story proper begins with Arthur Kipps, now a widower, leaving behind his young son to settle the accounts of a old house out on an island. Upon his arrival, he slowly gets to know the various townsfolk, who all seem more than a little chilly towards the great manor on the island. Eventually Kipps finds himself the object of suspicion and hostility, driving him further into his work to discover the mystery behind the titular woman in black.

What follows is a disappointingly amateurish ghost story, filled with both predictable story arcs and predictable scares. You may not know what exactly is going to go 'bang' at a specific moment, but you'll see whatever it is coming from a mile away. So even though the production design is quite handsome and there's some nice photography, a consistent atmosphere never develops. It's a series of BOO! moments that sometimes work, and sometimes fall flat. And with such thinly drawn characters, the film's lackluster success rate with its scares only becomes more problematic. After a certain point, you'll likely get tired of the film's build-ups to the next spooky happening, because Watkins makes it so painfully obvious. This is a film designed to get jumps out of people, rather than instill a compelling sense of chilling horror.

Add to this the massive cop-out of an ending, and what you're left with is nothing more than a cheap shell of a ghost story. Radcliffe is trying, and the material suits him quite nicely. The problem is that there simply isn't enough for him to work with. Ciaran Hinds is wasted in a purely functional role, while Janet McTeer has some fun with her character's loony, warped mind. Ultimately, though, all they've been given are scraps. Obviously, the film's purpose isn't to act as a character study, but here the characters really are just audience stand-ins meant to navigate us from one scare to the next. Compare this to say, The Others, which featured its fair share of jumps along with some strong performances, and the whole thing simply pales in comparison. And while that film's ending, which utilized back-to-back twists with hugely effective results, resonated, here the conclusion feels forced, and doesn't feel strongly connected to the main plot. It's just a contrived way to pass off a strange sort of happily ever after scenario, and it comes across as awkward and unconvincing. And those two adjectives, as it turns out, sum up the film as a whole all too well.

Grade: C


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