Having just read Susan Hill's outstanding ghost story a few months ago, I may be unnaturally biased in favor of the novel. While the screenplay adaptation of The Woman In Black fleshes out the story with more detail and a "bit" of action, this is still a classic example of "the book was better."
Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe in his much publicized first film role since completing the Harry Potter films), a young solicitor, travels to Eel Marsh House in a desolate, unnamed corner of Northern England on official business, leaving his four year old son in the care of a nanny during his three day journey. We are in Gothic country from minute one. Villagers warn Kipps away from dreaded Eel Marsh House, children stand around giving him vacant, creepy kid stares before parents usher them inside, and ultimately, when death begins to strike, the outsider is the first to be blamed.
The Woman in Black reveals its secrets slowly, perhaps a bit too slow. Subtlety goes a long way in this type of thriller, but the first half of the film is a major butt tester. Even when things do pick up, the film feels lop-sided, with most of the "action" coming in the third act. The matinee I attended was filled to the brim with teen-aged Harry Potter fans, but their hero Radcliffe has little to do beyond react in an appropriately moody manner to the strange quirks of the villagers and the things he discovers at Eel Marsh House.
The real star of the show is Eel Marsh House itself which moves straight to the head of the class to stand alongside of such classic haunted houses as Hill House and The Overlook Hotel. There are several extended sequences involving the house's nursery and a number of strange apparitions and bizarre children's toys. In fact, the production design is savory Gothic eye candy, with a few stunning touches - the tide which cuts off the house from the mainland, a raven that flies out of a chimney, and a scene created for the film where Radcliffe goes diving into the black tarn of Eel Marsh.
I might have kinder things to say about the movie but for the one thing which is usually a deal breaker for any film based on a well loved piece of fiction: they changed the ending.
That aside, as I left the cinema listening to the pint size crew debating whether it was scary or not, I found myself wondering what Team Harry Potter thought of a story about a vengeful spirit who relentlessly murders children? The film may have been rated PG-13, but most of the disturbing stuff involved children dying in particularly gruesome ways.