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“The Woman in Black” Stage-to-Screen Review: Fear and Loathing at Eel Marsh House!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Long-time Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons directed a spine-tingling stage production of The Woman in Black last October in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre at RLT, so he is intimately familiar with the story and the special effects that might be employed to keep audiences jumping. This critique of The Woman in Black, written at our request, is the first of a series of Stage-to-Screen Reviews that Triangle Theater Review will publish from time to time. — R.W.M.

Since Susan Hill’s popular supernatural novel was published in 1983, The Woman in Black has seen a number of successful adaptations. In 1987, Stephen Mallatratt adapted into an immensely popular stage play, which is is still running in London’s West End, making it the second-longest-running stage play in that city (after The Mousetrap by Dame Agatha Christie). Since then, there has been a 1989 made-for-TV adaptation of The Woman in Black by Britain’s ITV Network and two BBC radio-play adaptations (in 1993 and 2004). So, the current Hammer Films release of The Woman in Black, starring a post-adolescent Daniel Radcliffe, is the second cinematic retelling of Ms. Hill’s thrillingly spooky novel.

Sometimes a ghost story can serve as an insightful study in psychological terror. Sometimes a ghost story is just a ghost story. Whichever. One of the reasons that the filmed ghost story is so popular is that a successful example completely captures its audience’s attention, and takes them along a well-structured path of rising tensions, leading to a series of horrific incidents that may raise the hair on the back of their necks and, ultimately, it may make them jump out of their seats and even, perhaps, give voice to a spontaneous little shriek of horror.

The audience at last Tuesday’s free sneak preview of The Woman in Black was a very willing participant in this well-realized exercise in tension and release. This screen adaptation, directed by James Watkins, begins sluggishly (expositions can be tiresome, no?), but soon had this audience squirming and gasping delightedly in their seats.

The cinematic story is told in the manner of a Victorian mystery, centering around an earnest young lawyer, Mr. Arthur Kipps, played by Radcliffe. A widower with a small son, Kipps is sent, reluctantly, from London to straighten out the tangled affairs of a certain Mrs. Drablow. His journey takes him to the coast of England’s remote northeast. This is a land rife with unpredictable tides and fogs and dangerous marshes and bogs, plus intractable villagers who seem intent on driving the hapless Mr. Kipps away. There is, of course, an isolated, ramshackle mansion (“Eel Marsh House”); and (dare I say it?) a mysterious Woman in Black.

As Mr. Kipps labors at his herculean task, he gradually uncovers puzzling details surrounding the deceased Mrs. Drablow and her unhappy family. Along the way, he is subjected to some rather grim ghostly manifestations of a possibly dangerous nature. That’s really all you need to know.

Daniel Radcliffe (looking more-and-more like a younger, slighter Jake Gyllenhaal) portrays the increasingly distressed Arthur Kipps. Mr. Radcliffe’s apprenticeship in the popular Harry Potter franchise has stood him in very good stead, and he manages the pivotal role with skill and finesse (though occasionally the audience might wish that his famous blue eyes were more expressive of the horrific circumstances).

Radcliffe is joined by the very versatile character actor Ciarán Hinds and the wonderful Janet McTeer, as Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Daly, the only people in this isolated community willing to extend a welcoming hand to the young stranger. The rest of the cast, though unfamiliar to me, is drawn from the seemingly endless supply of talented British character actors, and a very interesting lot of folk they are, too!

Of particular note in this motion-picture version of The Woman in Black is the art direction and production design – by Kave Quinn and Paul Ghirardani, respectively. They are remarkably well realized, with some beautifully detailed set décor and creepily appropriate properties and accessories. Also key in the storytelling is the cinematography of Tim Maurice-Jones, replete with swirling mists and evocatively shadowy lighting.

Of course, when setting a suspenseful mood in a movie, the director has an arsenal of tools at his command: dramatic music, sudden cuts to unexpected images, and the ever-popular “loud and startling sound effect.” Our director, James Watkins, uses these tools skillfully, if occasionally, predictably.

In the final analysis, this film will give us (with one possible exception) no iconic moment in terror as in, for example, Wait Until Dark (1967) or Alien (1979). But I will say this: the climactic moments seemed to work effectively on Tuesday’s audience and, for the most part, on me as well.

This film has no ulterior motives insofar as having a timeless message to deliver. This is storytelling for the sake of a well-told story. Director James Watkins is only interested in telling a well-crafted story of ghostly thrills and surprises, effectively served up by a talented cast, who deliver believable, well-realized characters. In this I think the film is, for the most part, successful.

Finally, though perhaps not to everyone’s taste, as the fella said: “If this is the kind of film you like, this is the kind of film you will like.”

The Woman in Black
(U.K./Canada/Sweden, 2011)

Genre: Drama/Horror/Thriller, Color, Rated PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images), 95 Minutes.
Directed by James Watkins.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Roger Allam, Shaun Dooley, Sophie Stuckey, Mischa Handley, Liz White, and Alisa Khasanova.
Official Websites: http://womaninblack.com/ (U.S.) and http://www.thewomaninblack-movie.co.uk/ (U.K.).
Trailers: http://womaninblack.com/.
Featurette: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1135386905/.
Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596365/.
Rotten Tomatoes (rated 65 percent FRESH, based on 64 reviews): http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_woman_in_black_2011/.
Fandango.com: http://www.fandango.com/thewomaninblack_136701/movieoverview.
Wikipedia (the film): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woman_in_Black_(2012_film).
The Stage Play: http://www.thewomaninblack.com/.
Wikipedia (the book): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woman_in_Black.
The Book: http://www.susan-hill.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=56&Itemid=52.
Susan Hill: http://www.susan-hill.com/.

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