"THE WOMAN IN BLACK" — ★★★ — Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciaran Hinds; PG-13 (thematic material and violence/disturbing images); in general release
Daniel Radcliffe acquits himself reasonably well in his first adult big-screen role, a man haunted by "The Woman in Black."
He plays a young lawyer, a single father and widower with enough conviction to make this spooky period piece credible, though one might wish for a little more fear in the character and in his performance when confronted by the supernaturally sinister.
I guess once you've faced down Lord Voldemort, you ain't afraid of no ghosts.
Arthur Kipps is a failing young barrister in the Britain of the early 1920s. He still grieves for his wife, who died in childbirth, and pays a little too much attention to the spiritualist ads in his local newspaper. That's how much he longs to see her again.
But he has a young son to support, so he seizes one last chance to prove himself to his firm — a trek to the north of Britain, to the marshy east coast where he must rummage through the papers of a family whose long-abandoned mansion, Eel Marsh, is to be sold.
The residents of the dank, grey and backward little village of Crythin Gifford aren't very welcoming. There's no room at the inn, no smile at any door. They want him gone, and quick. And as the film's opening scene has shown — three village girls hurl themselves out of a window — we know there's tragedy there.
Only the county's wealthiest man, Samuel Daily (Ciaran Hinds), will give Arthur the time of day. He hints at an explanation for the apparition Arthur has seen at Eel Marsh, but he dismisses it: "Don't go chasing shadows, Arthur."
Naturally, that's exactly what Arthur does. The house is on an island surrounded by the incoming tide several times a day, so he is stranded there with a jumble of papers, cobwebs and candles for long stretches of time. And no thump of a rocking chair or glimpse of a wraith in black mourning dress can go un-investigated.
There's a lot of atmosphere, but not a lot of urgency to this James Watkins ("Eden Lake") film. The back story may be only sketched in, but the chilling moments arrive with a bracing, hair-raising jolt. I love the way he uses the simplest effects — the way Arthur, holding a candle, is followed across the room through the reflection of the candle on an old doll's glass eye, a simple look of doomed resignation on a child's face, an unearthly hand slapped against a window. Oscar nominee Janet McTeer ("Albert Nobbs") is a special effect herself, playing the mercurial, mad Mrs. Daily.
I was less impressed with the efforts the film makes to push adulthood onto Radcliffe. Is he really that close to the towering Ciaran Hinds in height? Would a boyish working lawyer really address his social superior (Daily) by his first name in that era? (We've all seen "Downton Abbey," for heaven's sake.) Too little effort is spent explaining Arthur's fearless acceptance and seeming understanding of the ghost he sees and pursues.
Those quibbles aside, the bottom line on "The Woman in Black" is that it is a very spooky movie. Old-fashioned and old school, it makes a convincing case for life after death and, for Radcliffe, life after Harry Potter.
"The Woman in Black" is rated PG-13 for thematic material and violence/disturbing images; running time: 95 minutes.