The Critic: I Saw a Woman in Black

I first read the book The Woman In Black whilst in school and studying gothic literature. It was for more one of the most riveting horrors I have ever read for one main reason: it made you doubt yourself. It had managed to get into your head and think about every situation within it, not just letting you think of good & bad but the mixtures in-between, the emotions that make us crave revenge, the sorrow of loss which is fed by the deep love we have for those close to us. In comparison to Frankenstein or Dracula it didn’t settle with simple stereotypes of men and women; unlike recent R. L. Stein‘s children’s books it didn’t focus on the disgusting or the gory; unlike every horror I’ve read (excluding The Handmaids Tale which has so many genres within it, it cannot stick to just horror) it didn’t leave me comfortable, without even the glimmer of exciting fear. The story was tragic, heart-wrenching and not simply for the hero Kipps but all those around him and even the Woman in Black, herself. I loved the complexity and style of writing that made me continue reading it and remembering it long after I’d put it down.

Part of my English classes’ instruction on Susan Hill‘s book was to visit the theatre, to see an adaptation of The Woman in Black. I was sceptical that such a book could be aptly portrayed when so much of the story was based on tricks of the mind and eyes, a woman appearing and disappearing without trace, and the distant, yet reborn, history of tragic events. It surprised me and astounded me as the audience was tricked again and again, was put on edge by well-timed screams, sound effects allowing us to see on our heads the events portrayed. The addition of a hired actor, replaying events for an old and tired Kipps, was ingenious as it added another dimension to the tale: the actor, too, could be cursed with the story and could alongside the audience be scared, leaving everyone involved on tenterhooks right up to the curtain’s fall.

I saw it again with my family and the audiences (and my own) screams, squeals, and jumps, were just as fresh second time round. There is something about theatre that can not be mimicked anywhere else: it is the only situation where viewers can actually feel the fear of the actors, and vice versa, the tension is electric.

Of course, once the trailers for The Woman in Black started showing I fell back into dubious suspicion. How would Hollywood edit this masterpiece? How could the viewers have that same feeling felt from delving into its pages or feeling events happen inches from you? I didn’t know if I trusted film producers to take on this work and change it; countless other remakes had gone before, countless comics, graphics novels, fairy tales, and books had fallen claim of the film industry and none I felt had really stayed true to the original, kept the spirit of the first, or had missed out simple, yet key parts, integral to sometimes even the title (Deathly Hallows being one but that’s a different post altogether).

A second issue I had with the trailers and commentary around it was the attitude towards Daniel Radcliffe. The film was being seen as his rebirth into adult acting, as if he could finally leave Potter behind, as if with one career choice he had saved himself from being typecast. Part of my issue with that is because Daniel Radcliffe has actually been performing outside of Harry Potter; Equus, although hugely controversial (and a little disturbing in how many girls went to see it just to see Radcliffe’s penis), had already seen Daniel take on a new role, one that was so in contrast to Harry Potter there was even a little uproar by parents that he might influence their poor little children too much. It seems that to many film critics, this performance on the west end was little more than a publicity stunt, hardly something to take seriously – it is after all only theatre. Note my sarcasm.

English: Daniel Radcliffe at the film premiere...
Image via Wikipedia

I was, however, keen to see the film. I do not like judging anything by its cover and if I dislike it after viewing something I tend to forget it. If it is forgettable, it was likely not that good. So as an almost anti-valentines (on my part) bargain with my husband we bought tickets and sat patiently for the film to start, noting a little worriedly that two very small boys had walked in, and if they didn’t scream and wet their pants I would be exceedingly surprised. I should probably note that my husband hates with a passion, horrors, didn’t want to see it and who lovingly came due to my interest in it. I shouldn’t have made him and I won’t again.

The Woman in Black did many clever things and had obviously paid close attention to both the book and the theatre production. The glimpses of a woman were seen, but only by a few, a stare of dark eyes were seen, but only by a few, the film continued to make you doubt your own mind because it may have just been a trick of the light, a coincidental shape, just a blur. None of these were true, every single one was planned. If you blinked you missed something which meant that my eyes were sore by the end of the first ten minutes.

My main, and possibly only, issue with the presentation of the tale was the change, and over-romanticising, of Kipps’ family life. I felt that had they kept to the original it would have  been far more of a dramatic ending, less soft-hearted and far more tragic. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want a ton of tragic stories, or films where there are no happy endings. The thing that I am willing to admit though, is that sometimes there are stories which are simply more interesting with a sad end, or even an ambiguous note. In a story in which the events of all involved are meant to pull at the heartstrings of every reader and viewer, allowing one to have a somewhat easy ending (however tear-inducing) seems to slip a little too far towards just giving the audience what they might want.. *cough* Pride & Prejudice *cough*

[Jane Austen would turn in her grave at the thought of both of them in the historical equivalent of underwear kissing out on a pier – oh America how you corrupt us!] 

Other than this I had my mind-changed when it came to Daniel Radcliffe. When he came on-screen it was rather difficult to not think of him as a teenager, or at least a young man; my brain couldn’t quite grab the idea of him as a widowed husband, and father, and even less as a professional lawyer capable of travelling the country to deal with paperwork. However, there was a change and it came when Kipps bargained his way into being able to do his job. In that moment it wasn’t just Kipps, it was Radcliffe bargaining his way into this role, as an adult taking charge of his career and doing it well. By the end there was no doubt that he loved his son, there was no doubt that he would run into a burning building, and there was no doubt that Radcliffe will have a longterm career in front of him.

The film was good; it was clever; it was beautifully filmed; most importantly for a horror film, it had my heart beating fast and my eyes not willing to blink for the entirety of it. However, despite its lack of sex and bad language, I don’t understand the rating of 12A. My husband and I had the image of her face in our minds as we turned off the lights for three nights in a row. No film has ever freaked me out this much and I am not easily scared. Although I often rationalise fears and did with this film, I found that certain images and the repeating phrase “never forgive, never forgive, never forgive” stuck so hard that I think that would be enough to give even the most brave 13 year olds nightmares. I might just be underestimating teenagers but if I am, I am concerned about the desensitization of the young.

Ultimately, I would recommend The Woman In Black for its story, but first I would recommend the book, and following that the theatre production. The film has done a good job at keeping the spirit, but for some reason a book and a theatre seem to be a much safer place for the young to see this story. It allows for much more imagination, which means the mind can protect itself. It might be worth testing that process of your mind before you throw yourself into what is quite simply a terrifying portrayal of a terrifying story. My final comment is for Radcliffe – well done. I will be expecting great things from you in the future.

Rating: 4/5

0 Comments Add yours

  1. Bec says:

    I remember going to see WiB at the theatre and thinking that a pre- show workshop which revealed some of the secrets to the ‘horror’ would ruin it. It didn’t. I was still scared.

    How does the film measure up to those frightening moments when you’ve just about relaxed to feel a chill, then the presence of the Woman in Black winding her way through the audience?

    Admittedly not much of a horror fan, so won’t be seeing the film but just wondered…

    1. EKMCronin says:

      That was exactly what I asked before I saw it, and I likewise would have been just as sceptical about the workshop. I think it’s a different kind of fear. The speed at which something can be done on camera possibly makes up for the lack of the chill and her presence. The camera work in general continually made you wonder what was going to happen; just as soon as you thought you could predict when you were going to jump, the structure would change and spook you again. The split second between seeing her, blinking, and not seeing her felt very much like the illusions within the theatre. The sound effects, too, were echoed in the film so your senses were seeing one thing and hearing another: whilst Daniel might be walking slowly towards a window and looking out onto blank moorland, you would be hearing the screams of horses and child alike. Then a face would appear. Then it was gone.
      As I said, just as the actor (playing the actor) and audience were experiencing the same shocks, so was the experience of Kipps/Radcliffe and the film viewers.

      Would still see the theatre production over the film though 🙂

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