Review: The Woman in Black
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.