Harry Potter is six feet under and Daniel Radcliffe is understandably looking for ways to move his career in new directions. Full frontal nudity all over the Internet and singing and dancing his way through a recent Broadway revival of the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying broadened his fan base beyond the teenybopper rut. Now he’s trying something else: a creepy haunted-house thriller crawling with ghosts from the spirit world called The Woman in Black. It’s not exactly a setback, but it won’t break new ground, either. I’ve had bigger scares from a fish tank. Boring and sedentary, not to mention only occasionally coherent, this creaking-door mystery is not much of a vehicle to display young Mr. Radcliffe’s range and charm. He plays a prim, troubled lawyer named Arthur Kipps, mourning the death of a wife and faced with the responsibility of raising a young son alone, who has neglected his duties at the bar until he is dispatched by his firm to a remote moor on the windswept coast of Northern England to save his reputation (and his job) by sorting through the disorganized papers of an elderly deceased client in a bleak mansion plagued by spirits. From the minute he arrives with pocket watch on a chain and in a long black waistcoat, hostility glowers from every shadow. The villagers peer at him from locked windows. No lorry driver wants to take him to his destination, the gloomy inn has no reservation for him, and he is reluctantly relegated to a cold attic room where, in a flashback, we see three little girls fall into a trance and rise from their tea party to leap through the windows to their deaths below. It takes quite a time before the pieces of a poisonous puzzle appear, and when they do, they don’t always fall into place with clarity. But the stock effects of wind, rain, mist, a cemetery in the fog and an ominous raven (think of The Secret Garden) add austerity, if not much adventure. Where is Heathcliff when we need him?
Instead of Brontë logic, we get a vaporous apparition in black who has been haunting the doleful little hamlet for years, killing off the children. Among the clutter of souvenirs and personal effects left behind by the owner of the old manor, Mr. Kipps finds the death certificate of a 7-year-old boy, drowned in the marshes, his body never recovered. Further investigation reveals that the boy was not the son of the mistress of the house who falsely pretended to be his mother, but that of her crazed sister, who was found hanging from the beams and now seems to be living up to her vow to haunt the woman she blamed for her child’s death from beyond the grave. This is the spook of the film’s title whose twisted apparition turns up at the windows and wafts through the corridors in the dark, pointing to ominous warnings drawn in blood under the moldy Victorian wallpaper. The crumbling estate is being haunted by both the tortured suicide victim and her son, and it is Mr. Kipps’s unsolicited opinion that the only way to put the spirits to rest is the dig up both their bodies and bury mother and child together in the same coffin, where they can be together in eternal peace. To this end, James Watkins’s direction takes its wearying time, but his dependence on eerie psychological effects (keep an eye on those ancient toys, like the contents of a sinister doll house) instead of blood and gore is gratifying. Fresh from her showy triumph in Albert Nobbs, Janet McTeer chews the scenery as a mentally unstable neighbor whose own child was murdered by the malevolent woman in black. Mr. Radcliffe does his best to divest himself of any trace of Harry Potter, but he’s too short to give the role of the solicitor much weight. The totally predictable and utterly preposterous final scene, in which the woman in black returns one more time to wreak havoc for no reason, leaves the viewer feeling cheated and angry. For the ghost of Harry Potter in particular and occult fright flicks in general, The Woman in Black is close, but no cigar.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Running Time 95 minutes
Written by Susan Hill (novel) and Jane Goldman (screenplay)
Directed by James Watkins
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds