Creaky, by David Bax
Having seen James Watkins’ The Woman in Black, I can report happily that there is no good reason Daniel Radcliffe shouldn’t have a successful and impressive post-Harry Potter career. It may surprise you to find out that, in this new film, he plays a widower and the father of a four year old. However, after a decade of playing The Boy Who Lived (and owing especially to the last half of that run, playing him for David Yates), Radcliffe has developed an impressive arsenal of acting skills. Within minutes, Harry was gone, having been replaced wholly by the weary Mr. Kipps and his voice of a deeper, sadder timbre. In many ways, The Woman in Black is an announcement of a new phase in the career of its star. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t hold together as well as his performance does.
Mr. Kipps is a London lawyer, sent on behalf of his firm to a small coastal hamlet in northern England to see to an estate whose last surviving family owner has died. His boy and the nanny will join him at the end of the week to spend the weekend with him. When he arrives, though, he finds a less than ideal vacation spot. The townspeople are equal parts doleful and suspicious. They are eager to get him back on the train to London and, at all costs, to keep him away from the very house he’s come to see. It’s no spoiler to say that he does arrive at the dilapidated mansion and finds that he’s not quite alone there. The villagers, it turns out, had good reason to warn him away from there, for their own safety more than his.
For long stretches of time, this is a movie that works. Watkins carefully and expertly builds the tension until you are yearning to know what’s making that sound behind the locked door while simultaneously begging not to find out. The director and his production design team have great fun with the meticulously chosen and aged details of the house and with the morose particulars of the village life. Another beautifully cinematic touch is employed when we realize that the road from the town to the house washes out when the time comes in, turning the estate into a small island for a few hours at a time. The image of the winding path leading from the front door down into the sea is a hauntingly gorgeous one. Also to Watkins’ benefit is his great cast. Radcliffe carries most of the film capably on his own but his work is supplemented, mainly by that of Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer as the town’s wealthiest couple and the only people who are friendly to Kipps. The populace of the village is dotted with fine, small character performances. Each resident seems to be either hardened or shaken by the mere facts of her or his own life.
Yet there are enough elements that simply don’t work to call the film’s entire worth into question. Watkins goes to the same well over and over again for many of his big scares. Even when they’re effective, the shocks become predictable and cheap in places. And the sight of Radcliffe treading cautiously down a hall while holding a candle out in front of him practically becomes the film’s resting state. There aren’t enough images of terror that won’t be familiar to anyone even partially accustomed to the genre, though there are a few and they are great. Still, there are greater problems than Watkins’ arsenal of scare tactics. There is the plot to contend with. The origin of the haunting and the spirit’s (or spirits’) reasons for being there are good enough but when Kipps has to fight back, his solution occurs to him out of nowhere. When we head out to the marsh, we may welcome the visually innovative nature of what takes place there but it’s never quite clear why Kipps is doing what he is doing. The only thing we do understand of his motivation speaks to the film’s painfully simplistic themes. Kipps has lost his wife and he fears nothing more than losing his only son as well. That fear is reflected throughout the story so bluntly as to be insulting.
In terms of pure screen time, the positive may outweigh the negative in The Woman in Black. However, those glaring misfires (antique mechanical toy monkeys, for instance, are rather trite as a creepy element) are substantive enough to derail the narrative completely. Watkins does his best to get back on track but he loses his place a few times too often to fully do so.