Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is in mourning for his deceased wife. His gloom is so unrelieved that it’s affecting his young son, as well as his career as a solicitor for a London law firm. He’s given an opportunity to save his job—and take his son on holiday–when he is sent to Yorkshire to settle the estate of a reclusive widow, whose mist-shrouded mansion overlooks a tidal marsh. His arrival in the isolated village is met with cold resistance by the villagers, however. Only Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds), a well-to-do businessman, makes a kindly overture of friendship to the young lawyer, who seems to have little awareness of the superstitions of rural folk.
The Woman in Black is a Victorian-Gothic ghost story, superbly textured by Victorian notions on religion, spiritualism, and the preciousness of children rather than modern inclinations running to gore, bloodletting, and cheap humor. Convincingly immersed in this potently atmospheric scenario, where the tidal flats can suck down an automobile or unearth a corpse, Radcliffe is the very picture of lugubrious masculinity, and memories of his past doings as Harry Potter, boy wizard, quickly fade as Arthur circumvents the wary villagers to gain entrance to the mansion. The medieval manor house, filled with the High Victorian trappings of wealth gone to ruin, acts as a character, eerily seducing Arthur from his labors with shadows, sounds and the unsettled evidence of unhappy lives.
A rocking chair that rocks on its own, the noise seemingly amplified to resemble marching feet, is one particularly effective fright, as is the appearance of spectral faces in the fogged-over windows. As a haunted house movie—based on the successful novel and stage play by Susan Hill, and magnificently realized by its production and art direction—The Woman in Black provides flinches aplenty, and it’s a minor quibble to notice that putting the audience on the edge of its seat a little too often slightly diminishes the creepy tension being built by the morbid narrative. A flashback to the death of Arthur’s wife (the most wrenching death-in-childbirth scene in memory) unfolds in quietly horrific contrast to the inexplicable deaths of young children in the village.
Arthur’s visit to town is disastrous; an accident sends a dying girl into his arms, and dinner with the Dailys increases his unease: Mrs. Daily (Janet McTeer) is a hysteric obsessed by the long-ago death of their only child. Sam, however, is not only the richest man in the village, he’s the most rational, and upon returning Arthur to the mansion, he warns him not to go chasing shadows. (Those most versatile of actors, Hinds and McTeer, are especially authentic.)
Sam’s advice is impossible to heed as Arthur becomes aware of a mysterious presence, a woman in black with a hellish expression. He takes it upon himself to resolve the mystery of her identity, even braving the phantasmal nursery with a candle in one hand and an ax in the other—a scene Radcliffe is especially convincing in; throughout the film, and its requisite stretches of silence, he holds our attention with his resigned determination. More of a novelistic thriller (with a nod to The Turn of the Screw), than a horror movie, The Woman in Black seeps under the skin like an ill marsh wind, its delectable chill lasting long past the closing credits.