I walked in to the cinema to watch The Woman in Black, after an unexpected and rather embarrassing detour into the screening of Young Adult, with some unhelpful baggage. And I don’t mean the three jackets and bucket load of popcorn I’d had to awkwardly smuggle into the correct screen with me.
The baggage in question was the knowledge that this film version of The Woman in Black, written by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins, is the story’s third outing. Its third adaptation after appearing first as a book, written by Susan Hill in 1983, and secondly as a long-running play, currently on at Covent Garden’s Fortune Theatre. I walked in to the cinema knowing all of this. I can’t say I knew a great deal about either of the other two adaptations, but I knew they existed.
The funny thing is, even without this, if I’d gone in to the film completely cold, having never heard of The Woman in Black the play, having never heard of the book, I still think I would have walked out at the end with at least a fairly strong inkling that this story wasn’t always supposed to be a film.
It’s not the script that’s the problem. Goldman’s screenwriting is, in itself, as strong as ever. It isn’t the direction of individual scenes- each and every one is well put together, and when Watkins gets it right, he gets it very right. It isn’t the cinematography, the locations or the camera work- all are well thought out and this comes across. It’s not even the performances. Another piece of baggage I walked in with was the belief that I was likely to find Daniel Radcliffe far too young for the role of Arthur, a widower with a four year old son, but even that didn’t bother me after the first few scenes.
Because the one, real problem I had with this film was the pacing. It may seem like a small issue, but it means that the film never quite settles. It never quite relaxes into itself- and as a result it never quite immerses you fully- and this is crucial for any film. It takes far too long to build up the suspense needed for a really successful horror, and when it does, it is thrown away far too hurriedly. Things finally get exciting when Radcliffe’s character spends the night alone at the haunted house on the marshes, but this is all too quickly over, as is the second night spent there with Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds).
This problematic pacing gives the viewer an unsettling experience, but for all the wrong reasons. True, some scenes are genuinely terrifying, and the building up of atmosphere and intrigue can be excellent, particularly in the hands of Janet McTeer’s Mrs Daily. But this is a film, not a play, and it needs more. It needs more than a shadowy figure periodically appearing. It needs more than a few doors opening by themselves, and a chair rocking of its own accord. There isn’t enough terror for it work as a horror, and there isn’t enough plot for it to work as a thriller. The truth is, it never quite has the confidence to stand up for itself as a story in its own right, and suffers for it.
Perhaps if you go in to the cinema with no prior expectations, no awareness of the previous adaptations, and having somehow un-read this review, you will be able to appreciate this film for what it is, and enjoy it. I am, admittedly, a huge horror fan, so perhaps this too held me back as I was expecting more thrills than I was ever going to get. So by all means go forth and see it for yourselves. You may appreciate it far more than I did.
But I can’t promise anything.
One for the dog, whose tail wagged throughout his performance, even in the scariest scenes, and another for the times I genuinely jumped out of my skin.