Daniel Radcliffe has made the most curious, and brilliant, choice for his first role after a decade playing Harry Potter. The Woman in Black is a horror film, and that genre is not the usual move for an actor to tackle after a career-defining run. But, that is why it is so smart of Radcliffe. It sets him way apart from the Boy Who Lived. In The Woman in Black, he has chosen a wickedly smart, and downright scary, experience at the cinema.
The gothic tale takes place in the early 1900s and finds Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps recovering from a devastating life turn. His attorney is nursing a broken heart from when his wife died giving birth to their son. Now four, the boy is the only light in Kipps' life and even with him in it, he sees more sadness than smiles.
After his law firm gives him an ultimatum to return to work, he takes the assignment of getting a client’s papers in order at her remote mansion after she has passed. Once he gets there, the entire village is less than thrilled with his arrival. Why? Therein lays the heart of The Woman in Black story: What happened at that house that has the entire town frightened?
The young lawyer heads out to the haunted-looking house day after day in search of a will and anything that will give clues to the deceased’s final wishes. Kipps soon feels he is not alone and the house’s history appears to not be finished with anyone who walks the building’s halls.
Kipps becomes friends with Mr. Daily (Ciaran Hinds), the richest man in town and one who does not believe in any type of superstitious nonsense. Mr. Daily and his onscreen wife, Mrs. Daily, are the most effectively used parts of the film. Recent recipient of an Oscar nomination for Albert Nobbs, Janet McTeer is Mrs. Daily. She and Hinds have a volley in the film that is precious and also heartbreaking. They lost their son many years ago and the two are still in mourning, especially Mrs. Daily.
After the Dailys' reveal, the audience begins to put the pieces together. This village has a nasty habit of losing children to outlandish deaths. They blame The Woman in Black, a ghost-like woman who appears right before a child perishes. Guess what? Kipps has seen the titular woman on more than one occasion.
Radcliffe is solid as Kipps. Some have argued that he is too young to portray a widowed father of a four-year-old. But, what you have to realize is that people of that time married young. His performance is a great step forward for the actor seeking to move out of the shadow of J.K. Rowling’s world. Through him, the audience experiences the horror that is emanating from the screen. He’s in practically every scene and completely owns the film.
The Woman in Black runs into problems in the final moments of the last act. Its conclusion is less than satisfactory. Mired in the necessity of resolution, screenwriter Jane Goldman seems to have had to rush to her ending. The novel that the film is based on does not suffer that same fate and although it is difficult to bring a book to screen -- especially one that is so in the head of its main character -- we do salute the effort. The film is riveting enough, but not as gripping as it could have been.