Movie Review of The Woman in Black (2012)

by JoHarrington

Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer star in the latest film adaptation of Susan Hill's classic ghost story.

I was so excited to see this movie. I've been a fan of the book that it's based upon since the 1980s!

This is one of the classic ghost stories of all time. When done correctly, its subtle touch is far more terrifying than any of the slash, gore, scream fests out there.

As soon as The Woman in Black was released, I rushed down to the local theater and settled down to enjoy it. Or cringe at it. Whichever would happen next.

This is my take on what I saw on the silver screen.

Daniel Radcliffe in a Chilling Edwardian Ghost Story

He should 'fear her curse', because Eel Marsh House definitely is not Hogwarts!

The Woman in Black has raised goose-bumps on the arms of generations of ghost story fanatics.

It's been a novelette, a stage play, a made-for-TV film, and a long-running West End stage show. Now it's hit the silver screen in a movie sanctioned by author Susan Hill; and starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.

As a child, I read the book. As a teenager, I saw the television drama. As a young adult, I watched a theater adaptation. It was as a long-term fan of the tale itself, that I bought my nachos and settled down in the cinema. I wanted to see what Hammer Film Productions had done to one of my favorite ghost stories.

Would it live up to expectations?

British Trailer of Hammer's The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black Film Posters

Buy collectible movie promo flyers to capture a piece of this enduring ghost story.
The Woman in Black Poster - 2012 Movi...The Woman in Black Poster - 2012 Movi...Woman in Black 27 X 40 Original Theat...

Pre-Conceptions of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black

After half a life-time of revisiting this tale, I knew the story-line before the curtain even went up.

There is a subtle psychology at work in Susan Hill's supernatural telling.

The chills that run down your spine, as you read her words, aren't so much in what actually occurs. It's in what you almost see and the places into which your imagination is turned.

Such a thing is difficult to translate from the page into other media, when so much relies upon set and setting.

Arthur Kipps is a young, ambitious lawyer, in an age of Edwardian propriety. As a junior staff-member of a legal office, he is sent to the north of England to oversee the execution of a deceased client's will.

Against a back-drop of marshy wilderness, he encounters villagers close-lipped and wary of the large house belonging to the late Mrs Drablow. It has to be reached via a causeway stretching right out almost into the sea. The tides cut it off twice a day.

It doesn't take Arthur long to discover that it's not the building itself that's the problem. It's the secret that it harbors; and the curse that accompanies its ghost.

There would be too many spoilers, if I continued from here. I can say that I entered the cinema wanting a film that was true to Susan Hill's atmospheric suggestibility. The fact that she had seen and approved the script tipped the balance for me deciding to watch it on the big screen.

From the stage show, I wanted the rocking chair scenes to be done properly. They were always the ones that scared me silly. I also knew that an unsympathetic Arthur, an over-acted Woman in Black or comedic villagers could kill the ambiance and so the story.

It seems that I needn't have been concerned at all. It was different to what had gone before, but it wasn't bad.

Have you checked out previous versions of The Woman in Black?

Buy the book, the stage play and the original, UK 1989 Woman in Black film for the full spine-chilling experience.
Woman in Black

First published in 1983, The Woman in Black is Susan Hill's best-loved novel, and the basis for the UK's second longest ever running stage play, and a major film starring ...

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Woman in Black, The (Acting Edition)

Stephen Malatratt Based on the novel by Susan Hill. Drama/Thriller Characters: 2 male, 1 extra Bare stage The framework of this spine tingler is unusual: a lawyer hires an ...

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Woman in Black [VHS]

THIS IS THE ORIGINAL BRITISH HORROR FILM! In this spine-chilling Victorian ghost story, a lawyer is sent to settle up the estate of a dead client, and to sell her remote ...

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Woman in Black

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Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps

It was an important role for the young actor.

The success of The Woman in Black rests completely on how well the audience empathize with Arthur Kipps. He is the protagonist, so our voyage through each event is through his eyes.

It was a casting gamble bringing Daniel Radcliffe into this lead role, simply because his fame might detract from it.

The first scene in which we meet Arthur Kipps, I thought, "Oh look, it's Harry Potter."

This wasn't helped by the fact that he traveled north on a steam train shortly afterwards. The expectation was immense that Hogwarts would appear. Fortunately, that was the end of it.

Daniel Radcliffe played a very believable Arthur Kipps. It was an extremely intense and excellent performance. As an adult and a father, it was also removed from his previous, more famous characterization.

The audience could identify with him as Arthur, thus Harry Potter was truly banished. The Woman in Black is likely to be remembered as the movie through which Radcliffe launched the rest of his career.

The Woman in Black: Behind the Scenes

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Daniel Radcliffe | The Woman in Black iPhone Cover

Protect your iPhone 4S with this hard-cover bumper shield, which shows your allegiance as a Daniel Radcliffe fan.

How Faithful is The Woman in Black 2012 Movie to Susan Hill's Book?

There's plenty of artistic licence and a few omissions, but where it matters, it's there.

As a huge fan of the original story, I wanted to see a film that captured it precisely. Therefore my heart sank at the opening scenes. I didn't recognize any of this from the tip of Susan Hill's pen.

However, as the movie progressed, my doubts were put to bed. There is a lot going on which draws out aspects only alluded to in the novelette. There are some parts downright inserted. But on balance, it's as close to the mood of the story as anything that has gone before.

As far as possible, even minor character names and personae have been preserved. Some might have developed larger roles, but that was ok. There was nothing here that jarred with anything that Ms Hill had created. It merely drew out the back-drop and moved it center-stage.

This is particularly evident in the sub-plot of the danger to the village children. It is there in the original story (page 130 in my copy of the 1983 Penguin edition, if you don't believe me), but almost as an incidental piece of the overall psychological puzzle.

In the film, it's in your face throughout. The dialogue is lifted straight from the page, but elaborated upon. Then time and again, aspects of it are revisited. It constitutes much of the action, turns up on the trailers and in the promo posters. 'What did they see?' is one of the many tag-lines attached to The Woman in Black now; and that relates to the children, not Arthur or his own encounters at Eel Marsh House.

It would be a lie to say that the 2012 film version is a faithful adaptation. Yet I came away with the feeling that everything, from script to production, had been done by people who were fans too. I wasn't disappointed by the deviations. In fact, many of them I grudgingly conceded might even have improved upon an already classic tale.

Read Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (2012 Movie Version)

Buy the latest edition to see how the original author has rewritten her own story to correspond with the 2012 film
The Woman in Black (Movie Tie-in Edit...The Woman in Black: Movie Tie-in

US Trailer of Hammer's The Woman in Black (2012)

Hammer Horror Treatment of The Woman in Black

As a film company famous for blatant, gore-splattered horror, their approach here was reassuringly restrained.

I confess that I didn't know in advance that this film was made by Hammer Film Productions. If I had known, I might have thought twice about seeing it at the cinema.

Don't get me wrong, I love Hammer Horrors for what they are, but I would have unfairly pre-judged the genre as inappropriate for this story.

As a child growing up in the 1970s, I sneaked a look at more than my fair share of this company's film output. I have enduring memories of Vincent Price's Dracula; dark, haunted houses; screams and buckets of blood; then buxom beauties, with heaving chests, waiting for swash-buckling men to save them from the monsters.

All of which did not suggest to me a company capable of matching Susan Hill's psychological subtleties and 'did that really just happen' mood setting. Hand on heart, I will admit that I was wrong. They did pull it off.

There were a lot of effects and angles which did recall those legendary, vintage British horror films. If I'd remained ignorant of the fact that Hammer produced them, then I'd have assumed a cultural influence. But they seemed more sophisticated, like the company had grown up along with myself.

The movie is rated 12a in Britain, which means that under twelves can only view it in the presence of an adult. That seemed about right to me. The gore is implied, rather than shown; while the frights are more of the jump out and startle you variety. 

Hammer applies the same restraint that Susan Hill showed, in that many opportunities for being startled are skipped. This simply adds to the tension, as no-one is prepared when things actually do occur.

There were still more cheap tricks than I would have liked, but then I do prefer my ghost stories to be more understated. Nevertheless, I'll forgive them the few clunkier moments, because I left the cinema not disappointed by my time within it. Overall, they did Susan Hill proud and provided a wonderfully spine-chilling retelling of The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black Fails The Bechdel Test

Disappointingly, for a movie based on a book written by a woman, it doesn't pass the Bechdel Test.

Devised by Liz Wallace and publicized by Alison Bechdel, these three questions look at the representation of female characters in any film.  Woman in Black actually passes on the first of these questions, but fails on the remaining two.

There is more than one named woman in this movie.  However, they don't talk to each other. 

Ok, there is a possible scene that could be crow-barred into passing the second criteria (that they have a conversation).  Jennet writes a letter to her sister.  It's read out by Arthur. No, I retract it.  That's not a discussion.  It's one way at best.

But even if it was to get through, then the third and final point would sink it in the mud.  That letter is all about a male character.  The Bechdel Test asks that the conversation be about anything but men and/or boys. 

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.

Buy The Woman in Black (2012) Soundtrack

Much of the atmosphere in the movie was induced by this haunting OST.

Poll: Did you enjoy The Woman in Black (2012)?

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Sequel anyone?

Hammer Films have commissioned Susan Hill to write the next installment of their block-buster The Woman in Black movie.
Updated: 12/10/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 03/09/2012

I thought exactly the same beforehand, but it's honestly alright. Once you get past him going north on a train (about the third scene), then you forget he was ever Harry Potter.

I hope you enjoy it!

Mladen on 03/09/2012

I saw trailer earlier, but didn't watch the movie yet. When I find some time for it, I will definitely give it a try. I love thriller movies and horrors. Daniel Radcliffe is the one who keeps me from watching this movie so far. :) I would be expecting Hermione and Ron to pop out from behind the corner in every scene. No, seriously, I will give it a try!

JoHarrington on 02/21/2012

I don't blame you. It's one which I wouldn't mind seeing again.

RichLeigh on 02/21/2012

Will definitely be watching this one at some point.

JoHarrington on 02/21/2012

I don't that I do out and out horror anymore. Ghost stories or psychological thrillers are fine. Things like this and Silence of the Lambs, but not, say, Stephen King.

JoHarrington on 02/21/2012

They still think that their teddy-bears and the bed sheets will protect them.

BrendaReeves on 02/21/2012

I also loved movies like this as a kid. Now I'll pass them up. What is it that makes kids braver?

JoHarrington on 02/21/2012

I used to love them, as a favourite genre, when I was a kid. I must have watched everything that Hammer Horror put out, then moved onto the Twilight Zone and the slash horror of the 1980s. It wasn't just films. I'd vicariously read true and fictional ghost books, plus any horror that I could get past my parents.

I think that as you get older, you lose that suspension of belief, that turns unrealistic gore-fests into a decent film. Then you gain more compassion, because you can see what this would really be like, if you were in the middle of it. So I'm like you now. I'm more wary of horror. I've had my nightmares too!

Aww thank you. You say the sweetest things. <3

Angel on 02/20/2012

I am a chicken when it comes to horror movies. I dream about the things for weeks afterward! I used to watch them all the time when younger. I guess getting old has done that to me..LOL. Your review was wonderful - just as everything you write is wonderful!

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