Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Woman in Black - A Review

Going to be doing a lot of these, next few months.  One of my graduate classes this semester is "Film & Philosophy", so because I'll be watching lots of movies and reading lots about movies, movie-making, philosophy and the philosophies behind movie-making, I'm going to be in that mode. Might as review the movies I see here on the blog, help sort things out in my head for my presentations and papers this semester.  

Anyway, movie reviews are a bit different than book reviews, so if this is rougher than my usual reviews, please forgive me. In any case...

So, here's the official synopsis of "The Woman in Black", starring he of Harry Potter fame, Daniel Radcliffe: 

A young lawyer travels to a remote village to organize a recently deceased client's papers, where he discovers the ghost of a scorned woman set on vengeance.

Here's a link to the previews, if you haven't seen it, yet.

Now, here's the rub for me: I'm not a fan of many horror movies.  Part of the problem is how far they stretch believability in the main protagonist's reactions to strange, odd things. I mean, how many times can a main character see or hear or experience something strange or frightening, yet still decide to "stick around" where these things are happening?


And, here's where "The Woman in Black" succeeds - in a way that a novel never could, even.  Now, give me some lee-way, here. I'm very much a novice when it comes to analyzing film.  But generally, unless a movie makes a point of telling something DIRECTLY from a character's strict limited point of view, with narration and voice over to boot - "Memento" comes to mind - even though we see things through different character's perspectives, the camera is in charge, and we experience a movie from a ghostly, third-person omniscient perspective sitting right next to the character, not in the character's head.

And this is where "The Woman in Black" - IMHO - succeeds in spades.  For the first forty-five minutes or so, Daniel Radcliffe's character sees very little.  Just an odd looking woman in black standing outside this old house, lurking in the woods, and that's all. All the other great stuff happens off the side, in the shadows, just as he's turned his head, closed a door, walked down a hallway. Successfully amping up the dramatic tension for us, the viewers, but not stretching the reality or believability....

...because Kipps (Radcliffe) didn't see it! And therefore, we don't have a lot of those moments early on when he sees tons of weird stuff but dismisses it as the "wind" or notches it up to his "fatigue" or "shadows on the wall."  Meanwhile, in an extremely immersive experience, WE are pulled right into the movie, scanning corners and doorways - seemingly innocuous, innocent parts of the setting that are now ALL looming and threatening.

Now, Kipps (Radcliffe) shows up in this weird little village, and we have the classic, requisite sketchy villagers who all mumble in raspy voices, "Dontcha go up thar to Marsh House, sar!"   

And of course, Kipps persists anyway....but we're set up nicely with this early on, because he's lectured rather harshly by his boss back at his London law firm that this was his last chance to prove himself and keep his job.  He's a widower with a son, mounds of debt is alluded to nicely with a glancing camera shot at a stack of unpaid bills, so he MUST do this job.  He's desperate to, in fact, to provide for his son.  Good enough motive to pay sketchy, backwards villagers no mind.

And he's a haunted man himself.  His wife dead in childbirth, he's primed for a supernatural encounter with haunting visions  throughout the movie of his wife ghosting around.  So he's mourning, questioning his beliefs about this world and the one beyond, under duress, desperate to do his job.  All great ingredients. 

One thing occurred to me while viewing this film: a true Gothic tale would be very hard to tell in modern times, because a key element is a sense of isolation.  Being cut off from the outside world, unable to communicate and go for help.  

Obviously, the setting here is perfect: turn of the century when small villages have no  telephone services, the telegraph only runs sporadically, only one person in the whole village owns a car, and the house itself - on a mountainside in the marshes, when high tide washes away the road and effectively cuts our protagonists off from the mainland. Setting this in modern times would require lots more manipulation of the plot to achieve these things, which opens the movie up for more artificiality. 

And, the ending.  Won't spoil it here, but the resolution is nice.  There's no pat answer for stopping "The Woman in Black", but the movie still manages to end in way that gives comfort and release of tension. An excellent film, well-worth the viewing.  May even have to go see it again, when it hits the bargain theaters....