The Woman in Black (dir. James Watkins, 2012)

I've just been writing a review of The Woman in Black on DVD for Den of Geek (short version: I like it). I went to see it in the cinema back in February and thoroughly enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it even more in a dark, empty house at midnight...

Major spoilers follow so look away now if you're not familiar with the film. Every version of the story has a slightly different ending and there are several new elements in the film, so if you've read the book or seen the TV or stage version but haven't seen the film, you'd still be advised to avert your eyes if you don't want to be spoiled.

I remember being impressed back when I went to see the film by the accuracy of the representation of the corpses (I'm impressed by strange and grim things). The body that is pulled out of the marsh (an impressive model, of course) is reasonably well-preserved with grey-green, leathery skin. It doesn't look quite like a person and the features are obscured but you can still see those features a little and something of the person it once was has been preserved. This matches the preservation of famous 'bog bodies', preserved unusually well due to the water-logged, oxygen-less conditions, like Lindow ManȌtzi the Iceman and Tollund Man.

I'm not sure it would be possible to hug and throw around such a body in the way Daniel Radcliffe's Arthur Kipps does in the film, but you get a sharp reminder of the unusual conditions and preservation of these bodies when Kipps and Ciarán Hinds' Sam Daily dig up a more conventionally buried body and immediately gag due to the smell. Older skeletons don't usually smell, but presumably this body is meant to be sufficiently recent that it hasn't quite finished decomposing (though it seems to me it should be a good few decades old, and maybe shouldn't smell quite so much). According to the director/screenwriter commentary, some viewers were confused by the state of preservation of the bog body, but I was pleased and impressed, as for any viewers who know even a little about Lindow Man and the others, it would be a fairly clunking error if it was a skeleton (not to mention much harder to pull out of a bog with your bare hands).

I was pleased to hear Watkins referring briefly to Classical things a couple of times on the commentary as well. In particular, he makes a vague reference to wanting the cart driver who first takes Kipps across the causeway to Eel Marsh House (fabulous name) to look like the ferryman who takes you across the Styx, which gave me a richer view of the film. This is more due to the vague reference to the Styx than the driver - in fact, the glum, hooded look given to the driver seems more European folktale Grim Reaper-y than Greco-Roman, as Charon the ferryman is usually represented as a more or less normal ferryman with an unusual clientele.

However, I love the idea of the tidal marshland that surrounds the house as the Styx. One of my favourite things about this film is the beautiful location filming around the causeway (somewhere in Essex, apparently). It's probably partly because I love Mont-St-Michel in France so much, but I thought the wide shots of the expanse of marsh and of the water sweeping over and covering the causeway as the tide comes in were gorgeous. I love the idea of this huge, watery wilderness as an enormous border to the underworld and of Kipps' journey to the house and his experiences there as a katabasis, a journey to the underworld (something Radcliffe has done before).

There's an almost Orpheus-like undertone to the story when seen this way. Watkins and screenwriter Jane Goldman emphasise on the commentary that Kipps, still mourning his wife, is almost looking for the Woman because she represents proof of the afterlife. Seen this way, the story becomes a twisted Orpheus-tale, in which Kipps travels to the underworld looking for his dead wife and encounters a dark Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. There's even an unfortunate incident in which a character looks backwards towards the end. Certainly the haunted house, which was scary enough in the first place, takes on an eerie depth when viewed as the realm of the dead.

I've reviewed the film in more detail for Den of Geek, but I'll say again here that I like it very much. It doesn't do anything particularly strange or innovative, it just does a traditional, spooky ghost story very well, and the performances are great across the board (including Radcliffe, even if he's physically too young for the character). This is the only version of the story I've seen, but I'd love to read the book and I'm even more keen to see the 1980s TV adaptation, which Mum remembers as being great and very scary but which seems to be about £400 (and Region 1 only, though I have a multi-region player) on Amazon at the moment. If anyone knows how to get hold of a copy, let me know!

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  1. I haven't seen the film myself, yet; I'll have to remedy that!


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