Review: The Woman in Black

Spoiler Alert

This is not so much a review which encourages you to avoid or to see this film; it is predictably tense, Daniel Radcliffe is predictably average and all the supporting cast are predictably more engaging than he.  It is an average film.

Yet there is one strange and ( at least for me) unpredictable feature of the film that made it quite interesting. It is simply this: there is a happy-ending.

Daniel Radcliffe is a man consumed by the premature death of his wife which happened while she was giving birth to their first son. The film concludes with him being reunited with his wife and his son meeting his mother for the first time.  The ending was so out of kilter with the rest of the film that, on reflection, it became a metaphor for our neurotic fear of death.

In my analysis the ‘Woman in Black’ is ‘Death’.  Potentially the producers have gone to great lengths to recreate the archetypal image of death sans scythe.  Death is relentless, uncontrollable and impassive, and yet we also work relentlessly, uncontrollably and impassively to combat the grave, which, in the film, brings us back again to those we love. There is an odd kind of benevolence in that.

Perhaps this becomes most apparent when Daniel Radcliffe fails to appease the Woman in Black/Death when he brings back the lost body of her dead son. We are told that she will not stop; nothing will stop death. Radcliffe’s efforts resonate with our attempts to appease death, to make sacrifice to death, to negotiate with death in order to avert the inevitable.  Death continues.

Was this intended by the writer or the director? Probably not. Certainly it was Hollywood’s penchant for resolution and closure that made the slightly happy ending necessary, but in so doing it seemed unintentionally clever.

In line with this there is a sense in which the modern and pre-modern collide within the world of the film. Rather than drawing out a radical separation between these worldviews (the one able to account for the tragedies of the village, the other not) they were both afflicted, in their own way, with their wrestle with death. In fact it is the landowner and the lawyer (Radcliffe) who go to the most extreme, though in some ways rational, lengths to appease death.

These two characters represent the rationalization (or even the psychologization) of religious ritual. Religious ritual has always tried to circumvent death or to postpone its reality, either permanently (resurrection etc.) or temporarily (healing etc.).  In our post-freudian world, we try to connect the pain of the present to the past; and it is by reconciling these that we have a hopeful future. The psychological resolution of trauma fails in just the same way as superstition.  This ending seemed to expose the futility of either approach when it comes to death. What is rational is just as ineffective as what is irrational (the people in the village). These rituals of appeasement are somewhat empty.

Because we see the whole narrative through the eyes of people who think Death is aggressive and because the consequences of Death’s actions are not wholly negative the viewer is left with a profound ambiguity. Death is clearly violent and, especially when personified, pro-active and in response to this activity people feel the need to satisfy Death, which they also see as open to negotiation.

But this is the tragic fallacy of the film, Death is neither active nor open to negotiation. Rather it seems that the only appropriate response is to refuse to fear Death and instead cherish the gift of the present.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Woman in Black

  1. You know, I was frustrated that he brought back the body of her lost son, because it just reminded me of The Ring. You’re not supposed to bring her back! Of course, in The Ring it was the girl herself causing all the problems, whereas in The Woman in Black, it was the child’s mother. I read the book, but at the moment I don’t recall whether he found the child’s body in an attempt to appease the mother. Overall, I thought they did a decent job of adapting the book to movie format. As always, there are things from the book that I wish had made it into the movie, but the writer in me as well as the movie buff realises it’s just not possible.

    Good review.

  2. Aaron,

    You’ve vastly improved this movie in my eyes. Becky and I watched it instead of The Muppets and I was feeling bitter about that until this post.

    Thing is, though, were not the other children seen as in a kind of grim limbo? Why then did Harry Potter and Son go to heaven? It is this that makes me think it was just a tacked-on ending without the level of thought I would now love to ascribe to it.

  3. chauceriangirl, thanks for your comment. I have not read the book or seen the play and so my review is necessarily limited. You’re that there are inevitable gaps.

    RJH, I agree that there are problems with my interpretation and I am equally convinced that the ending was just tacked on. I do not think there is a way to get around that.

    However, in an attempt to offer a consistent reading, I would suggest that their limbo was either 1) a symbol of their waiting for family (qua Lost) at which time they could move on together or 2) a reflection of the death-centered neuroses that haunted all of the mortals in the story.

  4. “Was this intended by the writer or the director? Probably not. Certainly it was Hollywood’s penchant for resolution and closure that made the slightly happy ending necessary, but in so doing it seemed unintentionally clever.”

    This is certainly an ungenerous conclusion. I’m sure both the writer and director gave the film’s ending a great deal of thought. What your review leaves out is the fact the protagonist and his son are leveled by a train before their happy reunion.

    The truly “Hollywood” ending would have had them cheerfully return back to London on the train, The Woman in Black/Death appeased in the cliche fashion typical of nearly all ghost stories.

    As tacked on as you say the ending is, it certainly made you take the time to write a review which posits all sorts of deep meaning to the story.

    My take on the story and your review is that the writer and director did a great, and, yes, intentional job of making you think which is much more than can be said for 99% of films. Not only did they make you think, they did it in such a clever fashion that you can’t bear to give them credit for it.

  5. I suppose the argument here is, does Jane Goldman’s (screenwriter) re-working of the ending create meaning?

    There is no doubt that the choice to reunite husband and wife is an attempt at providing redemption for Kipps, but without sacrificing the core value of tragic tradition (death to reach completion). So a sad event – train splat – is transfigured into a glorious completion of a fractured family unit. Jane Goldman has cited Japanese horror as an inspiration for the melancholy tone of the film. Anyone familiar with this type of cinema will know that heroes often only ‘escape’ the horror by transcending into a new level of being (generally by empathetic experience or role reversal). Its rare that the issue or catalyst is ever eliminated completely; instead becoming understood rather than defeated. So when Kipps dies, he does so because he did what the others failed to do – he was empathetic to the ghost. One cannot exist in the same plain as regular folk once a new outlook is obtained (this is all within the law of J-Horror cinema, mind) The only other possible outcome in this context would have been if he had stayed in the mansion in trade for his sons life (or something to that effect), Modern American horror, in comparison, normally has an overt “all is end” ending, followed a post-ending shock ambiguity (such as “oh no, its not really over!”)

    Taking this into account, you could argue that the ending was chosen intentionally, but for different reasons. So i think you are both right, and let me digress for a second to say why…Pulp Fiction. You know why they have the cafe scene at the end? Because studios wouldn’t sell a film with a dead John Travolta. So Tarantino wrote the screenplay in such a way that audiences leave the film feeling happy and resolute – focusing on the pertinent and existential monologue delivered by Samuel L. Jackson. We all know Travolta dies…we saw him get shot. But when the end credits roll, he is alive and well, yet to die at the hands of a PopTart toasting Bruce Willis… whats my point? Audiences love a happy ending. Context is irrelevant. We just want to see our hero reach the final moment with a reason to smile. And that is why you are both right, Jane Goldman’s script IS clever, and DOES intentionally address some issues. But she has been forced to do so precisely because she IS pandering to an audiences need for resolution.

    p.s: nice post Aaron.

  6. Haven’t seen the film and probably won’t until DVD. But that was a great review. I’d actually heard quite a few good reviews suggesting it was a return to the old style of British horror of the 60’s.

  7. Brian G., thank you for your comment. Perhaps you are right. Certainly I am not against giving them credit but I think the film’s tone does not lend itself to read in quite this way. However I am willing to concede that I could be entirely wrong about what the intentions of the writer/director were.

    Brad, thank you for the background about the author. I should have done more research but I am a little lazy. It has already taken me two weeks to write this.

    Clark, you won’t miss anything by watching it on DVD. I hope this makes it a little more interesting.

  8. Am I the only one who saw the death of radcliffe and the son as a favor, for reuniting the women in black with her son? It seemed like she was putting them back together.

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