Solicitor, widower, and single father Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is perpetually in mourning. His distraction has been noticed by his supervisors, who give him one last assignment to prove his worth. He sets out to a remote northern town to straighten the legal affairs of Alice Drablow, the owner of the foreboding Eel Marsh Manor. Amid the gloomy environs of the house (and beset by local residents who want him gone), Kipps encounters a ghostly figure responsible for the deaths of the town's children, and a mystery that threatens to shatter his already fragile psyche.
I quite wanted to like this, a Hammer horror film playing by old school rules, emphasizing atmosphere over gore. But as gorgeous as it often is, it kept disengaging me at every turn.
Daniel Radcliffe makes a valiant go of it, but he was ultimately too young to fully convince - I could somewhat buy the harried solicitor/investigator, but Radcliffe didn't project the grief that would have fully engaged me with his story. (I use a personal pronoun here, because at least one commentator of my acquaintance had no trouble accepting Radcliffe in the role.) The supporting cast do a great deal of heavy lifting here, and Ciarán Hinds & Janet McTeer are very solid indeed as a married couple whose lives have been touched by the title character.
Much has been made of the film's atmospherics, but as if as a sop to modern viewers, the film is loaded with unnecessary shocks that dispel the atmosphere. I'm not sure the modern viewer really needs such rollercoaster effects to hold their interest; indeed, the group I saw it with became unusually quiet as the movie progressed, and none of us needed the steady shocks to hold our interest. Indeed, such scare tactics only undermine the narrative - if the Woman in Black is a lurking presence that rarely makes herself known, why does she insist on saying boo every so often to Arthur (and, by extension, us)?
But that's not the most frustrating thing about the film. (heh. film.)
The most frustrating thing about watching THE WOMAN IN BLACK was seeing it, as I suspect many saw it, in digital projection. A quick look at its technical background shows that it was shot on 35mm film, but how many people will see it in that format? And yes, the death knell of 35mm film has been sounded, but the real test of digital projection is precisely films like this, that call back deliberately to an earlier era in film history. The film's gorgeous settings are rendered beautifully malignant by ever-encroaching fog, water, and darkness, but the effect is lost thru the deadening effect of the digital transfer. It is certainly possible to make effective period pieces with digital cinema technology, but the mandated transfer to digital undermines films like this, that would be more effectively served by the warmer, more haunted images that film provide.