Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t know it, but we grew up together. He’s only two and a half years younger than me, and I loyally watched (and lusted after) him in every Harry Potter movie as they came out, enjoying his one-dimensional portrayal of the teen wizard while wondering what on earth would happen to his career when the well dried up. I was sorry to miss his performance in Equus, all naked hip bones and rocking out with his cock out (literally), but was delighted to see him get unanimously positive reviews from critics who were, to say the least, skeptical. I was more than a little surprised to see him next take on a musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, learning to sing and dance but once again garnering positive reviews. Through some combination of truly remarkable image management and, it seems, genuine talent that the eight Harry Potter movies managed to keep tightly under wraps, Radcliffe appears to have navigated the transition from massive child star to genuine grown-up actor relatively smoothly.
The Woman in Black was his first post-Potter film, and his first cinematic lead that didn’t require a lightning bolt to be applied to his forehead. Radcliffe plays a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, whose performance at work has suffered in the years since his wife’s death in childbirth; he’s reached the end of his boss’s tether, and he travels to the north of England to look through a dead woman’s papers with the understanding that if he bungles this, he’s out of a job. From minute one, Radcliffe is arresting. Maybe it’s the familiarity of that face, the knowledge of how recently it held baby fat, but despite stubble and sideburns, his youth is all too evident. It juxtaposes startlingly with his character’s status as the parent of a four year old, but we never doubt Kipps’ overwhelming love for his son, Joseph. We don’t question the heartbreak constantly lurking behind his eyes at the loss of his wife. And in its own way, Radcliffe’s youth helps to ground us in the film’s temporal setting, Victorian England. Radcliffe himself was 21 during filming, and in Victorian England, it wouldn’t have been unusual for someone of that age to have a wife, a child, and a career. Looking at Radcliffe, we see a man devastated by the unimaginable loss of a partner at what should have been the moment of greatest joy, and we see him getting up and carrying on. It’s quite a performance, and we’re not even past the first fifteen minutes.
The plot of The Woman in Black is almost aggressively simple, leaning heavily on every Victorian horror cliche in the book. There is a grand manor house in the marshes, overgrown and abandoned; there are frightened villagers who won’t go near the house and can’t say why; there are creepy children with bows in their hair and vacant expressions. Its nods to the spiritualism movement call to mind last year’s inferior The Awakening, also set in England in the early 20th century in a big house in the middle of nowhere. However, where The Awakening stumbled on a convoluted plot replete with unnecessary twists, The Woman in Black floats on the simplicity of its story. There are no rugs to be pulled out, no last-second reveals. It is, above all, a triumph of mood as Radcliffe, pale skin and black hair a stark contrast even in the light of day, wanders at night through the darkened hallways of Eel Marsh House, listening to sounds he can’t explain. There are multiple sequences that spin out for tens of minutes, wordless, as you sit on the edge of your seat and chew the skin off your knuckles in fear. Every second is creepy. Every sound is ominous.
Ciarán Hinds gives an understated, sympathetic performance as Sam Daily, a wealthy local whose son is dead, and Janet McTeer (most recently seen in highly convincing drag in Albert Nobbs) is compellingly broken as his mad (or haunted?) wife, whose life reminded me of nothing so much as the flip side of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic The Yellow Wallpaper. Aside from these two, there are no other characters of significance. We spend the film with Arthur. We see it through his eyes (kudos to the cinematographer for judicious and skillful use of over-the-shoulder POV camerawork).
Horror these days tends to mean slasher movies full of gore, or body horror, or any one of a thousand gratuitous -sploitations. The Woman in Black is doing something else, something slower and a lot more interesting. It’s a slow burn of creep that builds to a creepy crescendo carried by an actor we’ve watched become a man. Netflix it or watch it on demand. Go. I’ll wait.