Tuesday, 21 February 2012
The Woman in Black
Yesterday I went with a friend to the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle to see - well, what? An adaptation of Susan Hill's novel? A new vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe? An example of British 'heritage cinema', complete with steam trains, vintage Rolls Royce and lots of lovely coastal landscape? In a way TWIB is all of these, and of course it is also a new Hammer film. But is it an enjoyable celluloid ghost story?
My answer is a qualified yes. TWIB is not as good as last year's The Awakening, arguably because the latter was always conceived as a film. Susan Hill's take on the traditional ghost story is deeply 'literary' in that it involves a lot of musing by a man poking about in an old house. There is no dialogue, only inner narrative, for quite long periods. The stage play gets round this problem by an ingenious bit of very stagey trickery. The film takes the route more travelled and essentially deploys Asian horror shock tactics.
What of the actual story? Screenwriter Jane Goldman preserves the core of Hill's plot and of course the setting of Eel Marsh House. But much is changed. Arthur Kipps is now a widower and single father, his wife having died in childbirth. As some reviewers have noted, Radcliffe seems rather young and 'undamaged' for this kind of role. But it does at least explain why he persists in trying to sort out the late Mrs Drablow's papers instead of simply fleeing. Kipps' depression has put his job in danger. No workplace counselling in the gold old days. He is on a final warning from his firm - his career is on the line, and he must get the job done.
Fortunately he has some help from wealthy local Sam Daly, played by Ciaran Hinds. Hinds is one of the best actors we've got, and shows it here with a fine, understated performance. He too has lost a child, and his wife (the excellent Janet McTeer) is more than dabbling in spiritualism. Scenes with either or both Daly's do inevitably draw attention to Radcliffe's limitations as an actor, but he's not the first Hammer lead to be a bit of a cypher. A few people walked out of the cinema during the supposedly gripping scenes in Eel Marsh House. I suppose that ten minutes spent watching the former Harry Potter trying to emote amid Victorian mechanical toys did not strike them as entirely riveting.
Unfortunately this weakness of the central character is pointed up rather starkly by Jane Goldman's very drastic revision of Hill's ending. Suffice to say that, while satisfying overall, I don't think TWIB will be seen as a classic. I suspect that Nigel Kneale's television adaptation (which was much more faithful to the novel) has the edge.