Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“Woman” thrills but doesn’t fulfill

By Victoria Knobloch

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It will be a long time before our generation ceases to see Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Just as Elijah Wood will remain forever Frodo in our hearts and Leonard Nimoy will always look strange without Spock’s ears, Radcliffe has many years ahead of him wherein, despite any efforts to distance himself from the character, he will be known as the boy who lived at Hogwarts.

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In his latest film, the gothic thriller “The Woman in Black,” Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a tragic character who is worlds away from any lightning bolt scars. Despite this, the kind of audience that goes to see a PG-13 horror movie late on a Friday night does not forget its childhoods so easily. In one of many suspenseful moments during Kipps’ overnight in a haunted house, there is a ghostly knocking on the front door. Kipps walks ever so slowly forward, unsure what horrors might await him should he let the spirits in. Finally he yells out, “Who’s there?”

A girl a few rows down in the theater yells, “It’s Albus Dumbledore!”

Such is the laugh riot that will follow Radcliffe through projects both silly and serious. Luckily for “The Woman in Black,” a little silliness from the audience spices up an otherwise plodding and simple film. Relying heavily on jump-out scares while neglecting what could have been a complex and intriguing story, “Woman” keeps adrenaline high and plot progression slow.

Set in early twentieth century England, “The Woman in Black” follows the widowed Arthur Kipps, a man desperate to keep his job as some sort of law clerk in order to care for his cherub of a son. He embarks to the English countryside to finalize the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow, a woman who lived alone in a big stone house next to a graveyard isolated from the nearby village by the regularly flooded and often foggy moors. Complete with pale, suicidal children and a collection of porcelain dolls and mechanical toy monkeys to rival any Antiques Roadshow, the setting of “Woman” is nothing we haven’t seen in any other PG-13 horror flick in the last 10 years.

But what it lacks in imagination, it makes up for in stark, well-composed cinematography. Even in its most cliché moments, “Woman” is a beautiful movie to view. From the dark cobblestone village to the foreboding manor where Arthur discovers the secrets of the film’s titular specter, the palette of grays, browns, deep reds and flickering candlelight lends itself to an eerie atmosphere that, in a more caring film, would have been the most frightening aspect. But “Woman” builds a visual world where stories like “Turn of the Screw” or “The Haunting of Hill House” thrive and instead treats it like a carnival ride.

For a whole 40-minute stretch in the middle of the film, Radcliffe wanders around the house at night while things jump out at him. There is a cycle of haunting violins, followed by silence while he approaches a dark corner or shut door, followed by a flash of a ghostly face or shadowy figure. In one sequence, Radcliffe hears a loud banging from a room at the end of a long hall. For a good minute or so we watch him walk down this dark hallway towards the closed door hiding the sinister noise. When he reaches it, he finds it locked. He runs downstairs, grabs an ax, runs back upstairs to hack open the door and sees from the end of the hall that it has been opened in his absence. Then we watch him walk towards the door for another minute. The suspense is almost comically long.

This reliance on “gotcha” moments for so much of the film isn’t a negative in and of itself. For a fun night out at the movies, sometimes to jump and scream is all you need. But “Woman” sets itself up for more and never cashes in. The plot of a town cursed by a vengeful woman who lost her child on the moors is perfect for the exploration of human horror. Themes like the desperation of parents who fear for their children and the treatment of mentally ill women are briefly presented but never explored. Arthur Kipps mourns his own wife, who died in childbirth, and sometimes feels her presence. But he never ponders the philosophical implications of his encounters with the afterlife. Given the atmosphere and talent of the actors, such deviations would be appropriate, even interesting.

Radcliffe, all Harry Potter references aside, manages a believable haggard look through the story. Sometimes his more intense emotions feel forced and he lacks the nuance of so many other British actors, probably from learning to act on a fantasy set instead of being classically trained. Ciarán Hinds, a prolific character actor most known for his role as Caesar in HBO’s “Rome,” plays Sam Daily, the only friendly village person and helper to Kipps in his fight against ghosts. While Radcliffe holds his own alone on screen, as he is alone on screen for most of the film, he falls flat next to the more experienced Hinds. That isn’t to say Radcliffe isn’t talented, only that he’s got a few years before he’s ready to carry a whole movie on his own like this.

“The Woman in Black” would have benefited from a quieter, more psychological touch. It has all the ingredients for a more disturbing, lingering film, right down to watching a young girl light herself on fire, but settles for the instant payoff of in-theater screams. But it’s rarely boring, which is really quite a feat when nothing is really happening for so much of the movie. It also totally forgoes gore, trusting that glimpses of shadows and flashes of the dead are scarier than fountains of blood ever will be. It will lose much of its charm when it leaves theaters, as the screaming, giggling, Harry Potter-referencing audience was half the fun of the viewing experience. A terribly unsatisfying ending aside, “The Woman in Black” manages to be an entertaining night out. It settles for a good time instead of striving to be a great film, but for most watching, that’s just fine.

Victoria Knobloch can be reached at [email protected]nt.umass.edu.

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