Written by Robin Bell
After 23 years and over 9,000 performances in the West End, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black finally makes it to the big screen - but with the man who made his name as the boy wizard in the lead role, can James Watkins' film adaptation hope to compete in the terror stakes with the stage version? Oli Ellis finds out.
Susan Hill's 1983 novel The Woman in Black was adapted for stage by Stephen Mallatratt to fill in a two week gap at the Stephen Joseph Theatre-In-The-Round in Scarborough in 1987 - it was so successful that it moved to the Fortune Theatre in London two years later, and it's been there ever since! Now a new film adaptation has been released, directed by James Watkins and written by Jane Goldman - and succeeds where precious few modern thrillers do, creating an abundance of tension with a truly gripping payoff. The ghost story is almost unfashionable in modern cinema (cast aside in favour of more graphic gratification), but the slow, haunting narrative here manages to construct a feeling of chillingly unmitigated fear.
I went to see the film somewhat apprehensive about the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as the lead; utterly synonymous with the ultra-successful wizarding franchise of Harry Potter, I, and many other cinema-goers, would surely struggle to relinquish the image of the bespectacled boy-wizard brandishing a wand. But this is a huge discredit to Radcliffe, as he asserted himself quietly yet firmly in his first feature role since Pottermania.
He plays Arthur Kipps, a troubled lawyer sent from London to a desolate rural village in foggy, rain-sodden marshlands, to manage the affairs of a deceased client - but upon his arrival, it becomes clear that everyone in the town is keeping a deadly secret. He soon discovers that the house belonging to his client is haunted by a ghost of a woman (think evil Mary Poppins/Miss Havisham) who has an unnatural power over the innocent.
The film is produced by Hammer Film Productions (famous, of course, for 'Hammer Horror' pictures of the 1950s such as Dracula and Frankenstein) - and it certainly manages to recapture a similar gothic ghoulishness. The setting is quintessentially Victorian; the grand manor house, gruff locals with furrowed brows, creepy children in petticoats and, disturbingly, porcelain dolls. The obvious horror hallmarks are all there, with grainy, turn-of-the-Century photographs and low-burning candles perhaps bordering on the clichéd, but the story is an engaging mystery of whispered secrets and truly terrifying apparitions.
Potter would have been very much out of his depth with the pale violence that permeates this film. Radcliffe is excellent, and truly excels in this ghoulish, gothic throwback. Scary stuff.