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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012

The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe moves beyond Harry Potter

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The narrow road winds through bleak country, devoid of life for many miles save the squawking sea gulls overhead. The road trails through sea mist and rain squalls until reaching a squatting elevation of rock and woods at land's end. On the rise stands a crumbling house, Eel Marsh Manor, where a young solicitor, the protagonist of The Woman in Black, has been sent to put the property's affairs in order. The lawyer is already haunted, psychologically, by the death of his wife in childbirth. Soon, he will meet more tangible ghosts amid the decomposing ruins of Eel Marsh.

The solicitor, Arthur Kipps, is played by Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Harry Potter screen role. Radcliffe proves capable if unexceptional in a part designed to provide a low-key entry to his adult career. Distracted and taciturn, Kipps takes the steam train from foggy, gaslit London to remote Eel Marsh under duress. He will either make the grade or lose his position with the firm. Although not the most assured of men, Kipps must stick to his task against the sullen suspicion of the townsfolk, who don't like strangers poking around the old manor. According to legend, whenever anyone catches sight of the black-veiled specter that roams the grounds of the manor, death will be visited upon the village children. Kipps is in town barely a day before a little girl, seized with compulsion, drinks lye and dies.

Director James Watkins sustains a creepy tone throughout The Woman in Black without resorting to the computer-generated hokum that turns many contemporary horror films into laughable spectacles. Instead, he spins a more old-fashioned ghost story whose chills—and shocking jolts—result from jarring noises in the attic, ghastly white faces pressed against blurry window glass, sinister children's toys that spring into motion and furtive figures in the wavering shadows of candlelit decay. While its story is neither as sophisticated nor well developed as The Uninvited, The Haunting or The Others, to name the classics of haunted-house films, The Woman in Black is an entertaining fantasy with all the gothic trimmings.