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At The Movies: The Woman In Black, or Daniel Radcliffe Sees Ghosts And Drinks Heavily

2012 March 12

Did you know that Daniel Radcliffe originally wanted to be a stand-up comedian? I was delighted to find this out, because in interviews and the like, he is basically the funniest person alive. His timing and delivery are dead on, and he’s got this sweet earnestness, like your favourite dog putting its chin on your knee.

Naturally, these skills are directly applicable to his role as Arthur Kipps, a harrowed, traumatised, suicidal young single father-of-one sent to catalogue the creepy shit in a haunted house on some salt marshes in The Woman In Black. Obviously a laugh a minute, there. I can only assume he took the role determined to prove himself a Serious Actor, You Guys – which we’ll talk about in a minute. First, let’s talk about the actual story.

**** Obligatory this-is-how-my-reviews-tend-to-roll SPOILER WARNING here!****

I’ve seen the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel several times, because I love having the shit scared out of me. The scares in WiB come from Surprise. They’re things that jump out at you and say, “Boo”. Nothing more sophisticated than gribblies in the dark, which is a bit damning of me, but seriously – that’s all they are. They’re good at it, but I never find the horror in WiB particularly horrifying.

On stage, in the intimacy of seeing real life flesh-and-bone players getting menaced by things in the dark renders the jump-and-boo tactic of scare artistry very powerful, because you all empathise together in a big knot; you notice what the actors notice, when they notice them. Things can be hidden and sneak about, and then you, as an audience, find yourselves watching the scenery as much as the actors, and the hidden gribblies play out in real time and it’s all very nice and spooky.

Poster for Woman in Black shared via Wikimedia Commons under Fair Use guidelines. Daniel Radcliffe looking pale and serious in Victorian dress on a misty moor. A cloaked female figure watches from a distance.

SERIOUS FACE

You can’t do that in a film. You gotta work harder.  The film (directed by James Watkins) does its best to reproduce the “things lurking in the background” feel of the play by having Mr Radcliffe constantly off-centre in shots and filling the space behind him with shapes that might be an out-of-focus human face. It’s one way to create the atmosphere, and it does it well, but the main thing the film does differently from the stage show is that it recognises that cinema can’t get away with jump-scaring all the time without being boring. You have a lot more time with the camera up in your character’s face, and you gotta give them reasons for all them facial wranglings. Theatre is … all close up on your audience, and cinema is all up in your character’s grill. Distance is important. You can get away with less in film. You gotta have backstory and all that. The Woman In Black movie understands this, and Jane Goldman‘s screenplay valiantly fills the holes that the stage version simply doesn’t have the room to fill. We get suspicious villagers! Pale, zombified children drinking lye! Backstory and juice all about The Children and that, and that certainly goes some way to giving horror that’s more psychologically fulfilling than just working on pure adrenaline.

Problem is, in a way that it simply isn’t in the play (and I ain’t red t’book, so I can’t comment on that), it really is all about The Children (in the stage version, there’s a play-within-a-play motif that more-or-less prevents this focus wholesale). And, you know, while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, I just never feel particularly comfortable with anything that centralises female desire for children and biological motherhood. There’s a lot of that in the film, and I mean one hell of a lot – we’ve got the Woman In Black going literally insane over the loss of her child, first through adoption and then through death, and then we’ve got Mrs Daily (Janet McTeer), who isn’t so much of a medium as a large,1 channelling her dead son’s spirit all over the place and keeping little dogs as child replacements, and then we’ve got Dan Radcliffe being traumatised over the death of his wife who died in childbirth and all that. So it’s a pretty central theme.

Hold up a sec, Society. I got a little request. It’s no biggie, just: CAN WE PLEASE, AS A CULTURE, STOP CENTRALISING PHYSICAL GENETIC PARENTHOOD AS THE ONLY VALID FORM OF PARENTHOOD. Please. Please. Because right here, right, we’ve got the demonisation of the Mr and Mrs Drablow – who have adopted Nathaniel, the eponymous black-clad Woman’s child – as literal child thieves. This is what drives the whole descent into madness which leads to the haunting, deaths and general destruction. That’s it. That’s the root cause. Adoption. And I know there are tales that do it worse, but seriously; The Woman In Black revolves around how terrible it is when biological parenthood is subverted, either through death, or worse, through adoption!

It drives me a bit up the wall. We know that parenthood isn’t inherently holy and pure; there’re neverending streams of news stories about the extreme situations where it all goes wrong, but what about chosen family? Is it really that terrible to form familial bonds with people to whom you are not genetically tethered?

An ink drawing on card.  The title art the top reads, "What adoption will make you do (according to The Woman In Black, anyway)".  There are three panels, each featuring Daniel Radcliffe.  The first is a shot of his face, looking comicly serious, captioned, "Get a serious face".  The second is his hand, reaching for a doorknob, illuminated by a lamp, entitled, "Open doors".  The third is Daniel Radcliffe face-to-face with the ghost of the woman in black, who has a pale, wasted face with gaping eyesockets and mouth, wearing a veil.  Daniel Radcliffe's face remains comicly serious.  It is captioned, "See ghosts".  Beneath the three panels there is a borderless drawing of Daniel Radcliffe, still looking extremely serious, sitting at a table, with a large amount of empty shot glasses and a bottle of whisky.  Also on the table is a large pile of paperwork labelled "All the ghost homework you haven't done".  This drawing is captioned, "Drink heavily."

Aside from that, this flick catalogues Dan Radcliffe’s fine ability to look serious while opening doors, see ghosts and drink heavily. That’s pretty much what he does. He does so with alarming dedication, actually, and while I know we’re meant to, as an audience, suspend disbelief and accept that he’s a man on the edge with nothing left to lose, he has a wanton lack of a survival instinct. I mean, I’d realise I was in a horror film way back at the beginning with the creepy staring children and the rural locals who are afraid of cars. You end up feeling that his determination to open all the doors and chase disturbing sounds around the OBVIOUSLY HAUNTED HOUSE is remarkable. The man’s a hero. But you do really rather want to shout, “STOP OPENING THE SODDING DOORS!” at him.2 Still, his frowning skills have come on a long way from that other film thing he did when he was younger, whatever it was called.

They’ve also changed the ending from the play, which has it quite open-ended and desolate. (Skip this paragraph if you still want to watch the film without knowing the fine detail!) The film does something completely different, and it’s ridiculous. I imagine some people may find posthumous familial reunion on an otherworldly railway track quite comforting, but I found it ludicrous. It goes quite a long way to undermine the sincerity of the plot, and isn’t it funny that in horror/survival films, the pragmatic, rationally-minded one is always shown to be wrong or narrow-minded? Mr Daily (Ciarán Hinds), who is vocally sceptical of ghosts and contacting the dead… well, it’s a bloody ghost film, isn’t it? So he’s proved wrong all over the place, and the stupendously melodramatic ending pretty much consolidates his comprehensive wrongness, and I’m like, well, actually I sympathised with him a lot, so what do I take home from this?

YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:

  • It does surprise!horror very well.
  • It’s very well cast and located, and check out that house, I mean goddamn.
  • Mrs Daily is the best thing in the film, what with her mediumage and her creepy little dogs and all.
  • Oh fine, yes, Daniel Radcliffe is worth a watch as something other than that other role he played in That Other Film Series.

YOU SHOULD NOT SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:

  • It only really does the “boo!” horror very well; the rest is very, very cheesy.  That said, I found myself jumpy in the dark for a week afterwards, and I’m hard to scare.
  • OH MY FUCKING GOD, ADOPTION REALLY ISN’T A SODDING CRIME, IT IS 2012 CAN WE REALISE THIS PLEASE
  • The soundtrack is like Fisher Price Psychological Tension Music and I could have provided a more subtle and nuanced soundtrack on vox and kazoo.
  • Some children die.  But I suppose you wouldn’t be even considering going to see this film, of all things, if that was likely to distress you.
  1. DO YOU SEE WHAT I LITERALLY DID THERE []
  2. Which I did, several times, which is why I shouldn’t be allowed in cinemas. []
13 Responses leave one →
  1. Claire permalink
    March 12, 2012

    Reasons not to see the film : you’ve spoilered every major plot point. *headdesk*

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 12, 2012

      Hi Claire,

      Sorry about that, but there is a spoiler warning in bold near the top of the review. There are spoiler warnings, in bold, near the top of the majority of Markgraf’s reviews, because a) nobody likes to be spoilered without being warned, and b) we tend to go into detail about what happens so we can look at the gender politics in some plot-focussed detail.

      I’m afraid the warning is up there, though – I added it before I scheduled his post :/

      Maybe we need to put it in bigger font. I’ll stick some underline and asterisks on it.

    • kaberett permalink
      March 12, 2012

      … there’s a spoiler warning.

      … it’s underlined. It has asterisks.

      • Miranda permalink*
        March 12, 2012

        I added the underline and asterisks after receiving the first comment, just to make it a bit clearer! (I’m the ed, not the author.) We’ve had asterisks on previous ones, though :). It was in bold, though, and it did have its own line… we do try. We also try not to spoiler, but it’s… it’s hard once we get frothing! THE FROTH CANNOT BE TAMED

  2. Kay&theMerry permalink
    March 12, 2012

    I SEE WHAT U DID THAR. (Is she secretly Mrs Cake in disguise?) We’re going to see this as soon as we can, but I didn’t mind the spoilers because I’ll be there to see how DanRad is. :3 Glad to hear that they don’t overdo the “Boo!” aspect, though, I’d like to be able to focus on the story, too, instead of just gripping my seat with terror while waiting for the next scare.

    (Your fine comic captures the most important aspects of grown!DanRad, e.g. dark stubble on strong jaw.)

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 12, 2012

      I think it can get hard to avoid spoilers when you’re not just “straight reviewing”, but are having a go at highlighting, for example, one set of issues – like gendery ones. Because How It Ends For The Women (or other groups) does play a role, which it’s hard to excise, in how many of us form a feminist perspective on a film. It can be limiting – but I think considering the whole narrative is also a big part of feminist interaction with pop culture. For example, Who Bella Chooses (or what life she chooses?) or How Katniss Finishes The Narrative will have a big impact on how we might view them.

      For us, anyway. (An extreme example is when we wrote about The Skin I Live In – that film has a huge feminism-relevant twist which we felt we couldn’t avoid talking about in some detail…)

      Talking on the point of How It Ends For The Women, though, I think WiB is intended to be another story in a tradition of ghosts that manifest when women are displaced from their roles? It’s a female-hysteria thing, I think – the Woman’s malign power comes from the fact that the sexual politics of the age she is living in condemn her as unfit to be a parent. That’s why the adoption happens – she is deemed unfit to be a mother because the child is born out of wedlock, so she loses her child because of a cultural neurosis around policing female sexuality. And that indictment of the society around her, which creates her, kind of sits behind the story…

      The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins) doesn’t have ghosts in, but does also have the social issue of illegitimate children and resultant drama/suffering in its plotting.

      • Miranda permalink*
        March 12, 2012

        Although, that said, I think any social “rar!” in the story is faint and subtle if it’s there at all; it’s not written as a feminist tract per se ;) – the main point is it uses existing gendered tropes that are tried and tested for “scary” in this culture to tell a rip-roaring ghost story.

      • Kay&theMerry permalink
        March 13, 2012

        “It can be limiting – but I think considering the whole narrative is also a big part of feminist interaction with pop culture. For example, Who Bella Chooses (or what life she chooses?) or How Katniss Finishes The Narrative will have a big impact on how we might view them.”

        Indeed! Since focusing on feminist issues is what you do here and what I presume people come here to read, reviewing films and books without spoilers on some level sounds impossible to do. I’m not very nitpicky about spoilers because if I’m reading a review, I’m yet to be convinced I want to see the film/read the book/and so on based on the plot summary alone. On a general level, I find spoiler-free reviews that aren’t in-depth in at least some way (whether it’s about the music, or the cinematography, or the acting) not very interesting.

        “the Woman’s malign power comes from the fact that the sexual politics of the age she is living in condemn her as unfit to be a parent.”

        As someone who doesn’t want children of her own (I’m tokophobic), it’s incredibly frustrating to see Women Do Things Because Of Childrun~ (parenting) – or, alternatively, Mens~ (marriage) – and for no other reason in popular culture. I do enjoy the occasional no-brainer romantic comedy for entertainment, but it’s when that’s all that is available that it gets irritating; parenting is not something I want to do, and I feel a bit iffy about marriage, so what’s out there for me? Where are the films about women who become vengeful ghosts because they can’t be lawyers?

        Mostly unrelated: we recently read The Taming of the Shrew for proseminar class, and I have issues the size of elephants with the play because of the domestic abuse. We had to write an essay arguing either for or against an article* which argues that while his “methods” are “extreme”, Kate benefits from being tamed by Petruchio. Well, yes, in a contemporary societal context, but what about on an individual level?

        I’m bringing this up because the situation is similar to WiB in that while the woman in the story might benefit on a societal level, on an individual level she suffers. At least in the play and a great amount of non-feminist articles about it, this is mostly seen as a good thing; it’s that “Oh, that’s how they did things back then” way of thinking at work. I should probably read WiB to see how, and if, they really compare as much as I think.

        I will always and forever believe that Shakespeare was secretly a feminist because, come on. Or maybe I have too much faith in people. (Sorry if this unrelated got a bit long, I’ve had this whole ranty mcrant brewing about Shrew for a while.)

        * “Marriage, the Violent Traverse from Two to One in The Taming of the Shrew and Othello” by Unhae Langis

  3. March 13, 2012

    I have a grudge against The Woman in Black because we did it at school and as a hardened teenage horror fan I thought it was rubbish and the kind of book people who don’t read horror tend to enjoy. I said as much in an essay and my teacher marked me down because he LOVED it.

    I don’t think I could stand to see this film (might give the stage adaptation a go sometime), but on the point about adoption, I don’t think society is as comfortable with adoption as we like to think and it’s interesting to see these underlying anxieties about adoption coming out in horror films. I was talking about this with a friend who was adopted the other day and we were thinking of the quite recent horror film Orphan as an example.

  4. Michael permalink
    April 18, 2012

    This review cracked me up. I thought the film was a bit of a disaster and the play version is much better. There’s a great film vs. play comparison of The Woman in Black here.

    • Miranda permalink*
      April 18, 2012

      Sounds interesting – could you re-link? I think you forgot the link text :)

  5. Bianca permalink
    August 4, 2012

    Ok, here’s what I don’t get: Why do you feel so strongly that this film depicts adoption as a “horrible, sodding crime”? I seriously didn’t see it that way. If anything, it portrayed the former residents of Eel Marsh house as very wonderful, respectful members of a small community who mostly kept to themselves due to scandal. You don’t seem to understand 19th century, Victorian England and its moral codes. Women were not permitted to be single mothers in those days, so yes..adoption was common. Now, adoption is really sometimes a child’s life-saver. It’s different now, and it’s not considered a travesty, as you think.

    No, many biological mothers did not want to give up their children, but in some cases it’s all a woman can do. If she can’t provide for the person she brought into this world, wouldn’t she want what would be best for them? So no, it’s not wrong. In this case anyway, with the WiB, the Drablows were not being called child thieves by anyone besides the mother of Nathaniel, Jennet Humfrye. That’s only because she never wanted to give her son up in the first place. But she had no choice, but only because she wasn’t married to the man who fathered the boy. Again, it’s more strict moral code. Not at all saying the Drablows were terrible for giving the boy a better life, even though it was tragically cut short.

    I think today, maybe bio-parents have visitation rights, which is a far cry from what went on back in the day. So, really I didn’t understand that portion of your review.

    • Miranda permalink*
      August 7, 2012

      “You don’t seem to understand 19th century, Victorian England and its moral codes.”

      I would argue that disagreement doesn’t equal a lack of education or understanding on Markgraf’s part. This film and its source material are set in the late Victorian era; they’re not from it, though, and either way though I don’t entirely share the exasperation with the trope that he does, missing parents and lost children *are* key tropes for ghost stories that go back further than that.

      It can be argued equally strongly that what this film adaptation does with its final scene in my view is weirdly reinforcing of a bizarre dark-but-still-fairytaleish happy ending idea that certainly sends Kipps back to a secure, “correct” family unit in death. That’s the image that prevails, almost in defiance of death.

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