Harry Pott–I mean, Daniel Radcliffe–stars in The Woman in Black, a movie better known for showcasing the world’s most famous boy wizard in what’s officially his first adult on-screen role since the J.K. Rowling-penned series. A pretty wise wave of the wand by Radcliffe (and his fairy god-agent), casting the actor in a genre not too far off from that with which audiences identify him, but just a shade more seriousness: paranormal horror.
Regardless, a dark cloud hangs over the film like a case of Harry Potter and The Curse of the Child Star, the struggle being to divorce oneself from Radcliffe’s prior role, carved into our collective pop culture psyche like Harry’s lightning bolt scar. But enough about the ghost of a–aaaah!–multi-billion dollar franchise. There are enough literal spooks to deal with in The Woman in Black.
Radcliffe is Arthur Kipps, a recently widowed lawyer raising a four-year-old son in turn-of-the-20th century London. Depressed, plagued by visions of his wife’s death and under financial duress, he’s assigned to sort out the affairs of the deceased Alice Drablow’s estate, the isolated Eel Marsh House. Following a cold shoulder from the remote town’s local population, Kipps arrives at the house to begin working. He comes across dusty trunks of odd letters, mysteriously locked rooms, handwritten messages hidden underneath wallpaper and a woman cloaked in veiled black. A mystery unfolds, haunted occurrences transpire.
Under the direction of James Watkins (Eden Lake) and ‘50s horror heaven studio Hammer Films, The Woman in Black is treated with an air of prestige–from the period costumes, down-to-Goth-earth set design and clear-cut cinematography trained on providing depth and austerity as it confidently creeps around every corner of the mansion. On the thrills side, though, it’s less imaginative and self-assured, reliant on loud and jarring sound effects to scare the audience and reveal…a random bird! A wind up toy! The friendly coach driver! It’s a usual case of déjà boo. Using tricks we’ve seen so many times before, they cheapen the retro world the film asks us to live in. In between those moments, however, is the relevant trait of the film: it’s patient pacing, a dying art in the current horror movie genre where it seems a violent death need occur every 20 minutes to feel, well, alive. Like putting flowers on someone’s grave, The Woman in Black feels as if it’s paying tribute to a film from the past without truthfully wanting to be one. It’s proud to be old-fashioned in 2012.
As for Radcliffe, he’s looking ahead. In the British theater, he was eager to outgrow his Potter robe (undressing himself entirely, rather, appearing naked in the play Equus), but regarding his film career, he’s not as boldly desperate. His turn here feels colder and calculated–an effort to please both sides of the Marketability vs. Pigeonholing defense–a safe move making for a safe movie that asks audiences to feel unsafe. You can’t have your Cauldron Cake and eat it too.
Kipps is a pretty undemanding role that doesn’t turn you into a Radcliffe believer, but you don’t exactly leave the theater doubting his future either. He didn’t have me dialing in an Amber Alert to report a child star missing–Radcliffe still looks a little too green to play someone’s widow and father convincingly–but give it time. After flying on broomsticks for the past decade, the actor is just now learning how to walk again on his own two feet, out of the shadow that is Harry Potter. The Woman in Black is the first of those baby steps. You have a feeling he’ll get there.