A long time ago at a Film Night far, far away we watched the 1989 version of The Woman in Black. Compared to that, this 2012 Hammer production is a lavish affair. Eel Marsh House seems to grow organically from the ground, encased in roots and creepers and alive with supernatural promise. Whereas the earlier version made a virtue of desolation and subliminal tension, this one revels in period decoration and trinket-stuffed interiors. It is quite comforting to have Hammer doing what they do best though. Being back amongst the heavy velvet curtains, huge rooms and sweeping staircases is like putting on a favourite old coat.
It is basically a haunted house story, therefore all the clichés are there, but that’s kind of the point isn’t it? Aiming to break new ground or be cutting edge would be churlish. Anyway if you happen to be the studio that first developed the aforementioned clichés for mass consumption, I say good luck to you for giving them a home again.
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young solicitor whose wife died in childbirth some years earlier. As a last ditch attempt to save his job he is tasked with examining the documentation of Eel Marsh House, an empty, dead residence on an island only accessible by a treacherous causeway over tidal marshes. The previous owner was a Mrs Drablow who mourned a lost a son swallowed up by the mud of the salt flats.
We have a glitter lamp in the living room which we habitually have on when watching films. On this occasion it started faltering a bit, flashing on and off by itself. It probably needs a new bulb or something. It’s amazing how often these fluctuations matched the action onscreen. For example, as Arthur first stepped over the threshold of Eel Marsh House, the light went off and stayed off for some time. During lurid periods of frenzied activity it strobed and pulsed. The environment certainly has an effect on the whole experience of absorbing any stimulus, and in this case it inexplicably enhanced it.
I expected Radcliffe to be weak because of his unavoidable boyishness, but he acquitted himself adequately, although looking slightly out of his depth on occasions. Unfortunately he is often onscreen with the orming Irish character actor Ciarán Hinds who plays Sam Daily. His presence overshadows Radcliffe’s with a ruffled, looming earthiness. He befriends the young solicitor, and as he owns a car, offers to ferry Kipps to and from the island.
Directed by James Watkins, from a book by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black has been made into a TV movie, a stage play and a serialised radio drama, always to great acclaim. The screenplay is by Jane Goldman who keeps everything ticking over nicely, like the clockwork mechanisms of the antique toys in the film used to such unnerving effect. There is a real feel for the Gothic flicker of a shadow passing across a mirror or a barely glimpsed silhouette in the background. Maybe the Woman in Black is seen too early on though? Maybe the dread should have been given more time to soak in?
The house used was Cotterstock Hall in Oundle, Northamptonshire. The outside of it is all enhanced with CGI tendrils and vein-like roots climbing the walls. The causeway over the marsh was actually the path to Osea Island on the Essex coast. Filming could only take place there within a four hour window because of the tides. It has to be said that the drive inland from the island takes the viewer suddenly from flat salt marshes to Yorkshire Dales type limestone hills and drystone walls. It creates a kind of geographical disconnection which jars a bit.
It’s a great fun, back of the sofa film with no complicated underlying concepts to bother yourself with, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. A worthy, old-school Hammer jumpfest with high production values, impressive design, exquisite interiors and a solid script. Is it as good as the 1989 version? There’s only one way to find out I guess. We’re going to have to watch that again now.
There you go, and I didn’t mention Harry Potter once.