Film review – The Woman in Black – A descent into the underworld

The British Library is currently showing an exhibition on Charles Dickens’ use of the supernatural in his novels, written at a time in Victorian-era Britain when seances were a parlour trick which later became a pseudo-science; that of trying to make contact with a spirit world. Decades after his death, in a time of great loss of life following the first world war, there was an intense will to believe in more than an afterlife – a belief that there was intersection between the worlds of the living and the dead where lost loved-ones could be found once more.

The Woman in Black is adapted from the novel written by Susan Hill in 1983, set in the post-Victorian Edwardian era. It is a source that has previously been adapted for stage and screen, with the latest directed by James Watkins (writer/director of Eden Lake) and starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Kepp (Radcliffe) is a lawyer widowed when his wife died in childbirth, leaving him with a now four-year-old son. Beset by debts, he is instructed by a senior member of the firm to prove his commitment to further employment by taking on a probate case  – that of Mrs Alice Drablow, the deceased owner of the now deserted Eel Marsh House.

The house is located on an island accessible only by a causeway submerged under each sea tide. Kipps must sort through the many papers within the house to close the case and return to his infant son within the week as planned. But there is a malevolent presence there – the apparition of a woman dressed in black, the sighting of which coincides with terrible events in the nearby village.

Eel Marsh House represents Kipp’s personal hell, a projection of his psyche, mangled and distorted through grief. Like the Greek hero Orpheus who made a descent into the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from the grip of Hades, Kipps ignores the warning signs and is compelled to visit the house again and again in a quest to subconsciously reconcile the loss of his beloved wife, seen in his imagination as a spectral figure dressed in white. I need not point out the symbolism of this.

Watkins directs an enjoyable horror film worthy of the resurrected Hammer brand. There is an increasing assault of jumpy moments made good by sound design and editing, but that’s all that is on offer. There is nothing to really chill you to the rattling bones of your subconscious. Radcliffe is still to green to be playing a role of this sort, and he lacks conviction when delivering the speech of a widower. The end of the story has been altered from the novel in such a way that I think makes for a decidedly less jarring ending. But perhaps you’ll feel different.

I’ll leave you with this thought. In the film, The Empire Strikes Back, the young Luke Skywalker is being trained to face his own dark side, and must leave the safety of his teacher, Master Yoda, to descend into a dark cave that he is told is “strong with the dark side of The Force”.

“What’s in there?” he asks.

“Only what you take with you,” is the reply.

Kipp’s cave is Eel Marsh House. Yours is the darkness of the cinema. Don’t have nightmares, now.


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